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Former presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton eulogize civil rights icon at Ebenezer Baptist Church
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
ATLANTA (CFP) — Three former U.S. presidents and more than 50 U.S. House colleagues gathered in Atlanta Thursday to say a final farewell to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who represented the city for more than 30 years in Congress.
From the pulpit of Ebeneezer Baptist Church, once pastored by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., former President Barack Obama called Lewis “perhaps [King’s] finest disciple.”
Lewis’s life redeemed “that most American of ideas — the idea that any of us, ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame, can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo and decide that it is within our power to remake this country that we love,” Obama said.
“He believed that in all of us there exists the capacity for great courage, and in all of us, there is a longing to do what’s right,” Obama said. “He knew that non-violent protest is patriotic, a way to raise public awareness and to put the spotlight on injustice and make the powers that be uncomfortable.”
“What a gift John Lewis was. We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while and show us the way.”
Former President George W. Bush said Lewis “believed in the Lord, he believed in humanity, and he believed in America.”
“His lesson for us is that we must all keep ourselves to hearing the call of love, the call of service, and the call to sacrifice for others,” Bush said.
Bush noted that while he and Lewis often disagreed politically, “in the America John Lewis fought for, and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action.”
Joining Obama and Bush to speak at the funeral service were former President Bill Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who grew emotional when she presented his family with the flag that was flying over the Capitol on the night that Lewis died.
“When this flag flew there, it said good-bye. It waved good-bye to John, our friend, our mentor, our colleague, this beautiful man we had the privilege of serving with,” said Pelosi, who served with Lewis in Congress for 33 years.
“Every time he stood up to speak [in the House], we knew that he was going to take us to a higher place of our understanding, of what our responsibilities were and what our opportunities were,” Pelosi said. “When he spoke, people listened. When he led, people followed.”
Not attending Thursday’s event was President Donald Trump, whose impeachment Lewis had vigorously supported last year. Trump also did not join he crowds who paid tribute to Lewis when his casket was displayed at the U.S. Capitol.
The funeral was the culmination of nearly a week of events honoring Lewis, including a memorial service in his hometown of Troy, Alabama, and lying in state at both the Alabama and Georgia state capitols.
The crowd inside the church for the private service was limited due to coronavirus, and mourners wore masks. The service was broadcast on a television screen outside of Ebenezer, where crowds gathered in the summer heat.
Lewis, 80, died on July 24 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
During his long and illustrious life, Lewis, who grew up on a farm in rural Alabama during the Jim Crow era, had a first-hand presence at some of the most pivotal moments of American history.
In 1960, as a student at Fisk University, he participated in protests to desegregate lunch counters in Nashville, and, a year later, became of the original “freedom riders,” risking his life to desegregate buses in the South.
By 1963, he had risen to a leadership position in the civil rights movement, as president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and, at just 23, was the youngest person to address the historic March on Washington, led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
During the summer of 1964, he went to Mississippi to register black voters, part of the “Freedom Summer” to break the power of segregation in its most redoubtable citadel.
In 1965, baton-wielding state troopers fractured Lewis’s skull as as he tried to lead marchers over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, a shocking scene captured on national television that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act.
A campaign is now underway to rename the bridge for Lewis.
In 1968, he was in Los Angeles working for the presidential campaign of U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy when Kennedy was gunned down after winning the California primary.
Lewis had eventually extended his activism into politics, winning a seat in the U.S. House in 1986 that he held for more than three decades, becoming known as the “conscience of Congress” — opposing military action, supporting gay rights, leading a sit-in for gun safety.
Through all the beatings and tragedies, and the twists and turns of political life, Lewis never wavered from the philosophy of non-violence — and never stopped advocating for equality. He made his last public appearance in June at the dedication of a “Black Lives Matter” mural in Washington, the latest incarnation of the cause to which he had dedicated his adult life.
In his eulogy, Obama exhorted the audience to honor Lewis’s legacy by working to “revitalize” the Voting Rights Act and fighting against restrictions on voting access.
“Even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting, by closing polling locations and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision — even undermining the postal service in an election that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick,” he said.
Georgia Democrats have selected State Senator Nikema Williams to replace Lewis on the November ballot and take his place in Congress representing the 5th District, which includes much of the city of Atlanta and suburbs to the west and south.