Former President Barack Obama eulogized John Lewis as a “founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America,” while calling for a renewed push for voting rights and other reforms, even if that means ending the Senate’s filibuster.
Speaking at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta following two of his predecessors, former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Obama warned of continued voter suppression.
“Even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darnedest to stop people from voting,” Obama said, outlining a litany of concerns, including the closing of polling stations and instituting voter ID laws.
He also warned of the undermining of the Postal Service, at a time when many states are expanding vote-by-mail efforts because of concerns of the safety of in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.
Just hours earlier, President Donald Trump tweeted another attack on mail-in voting as “a catastrophic disaster,” while raising the question of whether the Nov. 3 election should be delayed. The president does not have the authority to do so.
Obama did not mention Trump’s name during the eulogy, but his criticism of his successor was apparent, not just of Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting but of his response to the demonstrations following the death of George Floyd.
“George Wallace may be gone, but we witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators,” Obama said, an apparent reference to the clearing of demonstrators from Lafayette Square Park last month in advance of Trump’s photo op in front of a nearby church.
Lewis died on July 17 at age 80.
Obama framed the voting rights proposals as extensions of Lewis’ life work. He recalled how the former Georgia congressman helped lead the 1965 voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma and was beaten by state troopers.
“I imagine on that day, the troopers thought they had won that battle,” Obama said. Instead, Lewis returned that day to Brown Chapel, his head bandaged, and predicted that more people would show up to march. President Lyndon Johnson saw the moment and pushed for passage of the Voting Rights Act.
A 2013 Supreme Court decision eliminated key parts of the law, but Obama said that more than just a renewal of the legislation was needed. He also suggested a series of other reforms, including making Election Day a national holiday and providing full representation for residents of Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. If such reforms can’t get through the Senate, he suggested eliminating the filibuster, which he called “another Jim Crow relic.”
Obama talked of how Lewis and other leaders of the civil rights era “liberated all of us.”
“America was built by people like them. America was built by John Lewises,” he said.
“When we do form a more perfect union, whether it is years from now or decades, or even if it takes another two centuries, John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.”
All of the networks carried the funeral live. Other speakers included civil rights activist James Lawson, 91, who trained Lewis and other young students in the principals of non-violent action as they began campaigns across the south in 1960 to end racial desegregation. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recalled the scene at the Capitol on Tuesday night, as Lewis’s casket was placed on the top steps outside the rotunda for a public viewing.
“Thousands of people paying their respects. A little bit after 8 o’clock, there was a double rainbow. But it hadn’t rained,” she said. “He was telling us, I am home in heaven. We always knew he worked on the side of the angels, and now he is with them.”
Former President Jimmy Carter, who lives in Plains, GA, did not attend but sent a message.
Bush did not mention Trump, but he hinted at the dire nature of political discourse. He noted that even though he and Lewis had their disagreements, “in the America John Lewis fought for and in the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action.”