Former president Barack Obama on Thursday delivered the eulogy for Representative John Lewis, the civil rights icon who died July 17 at the age of 80, by both extolling Lewis’s courageous acts and heavily criticizing Republicans in power — including some not-so-veiled references to President Trump.
After speaking at length about Lewis’s accomplishments, Obama noted that the congressman continued to be an activist even as he grew older, because of “the whirlpools of violence and hatred and despair that can always rise again.”
“Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators,” Obama said, raising his voice’s volume as those in attendance began to applaud.
“We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot, but even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darnedest 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 a run-up to an election that’s going to be dependent on mail in ballots so that people don’t get sick,” Obama continued.
Obama also called for a raft of structural political reforms, including ending the Senate filibuster, enfranchisement for convicted felons, and statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico.
‘And by the way, naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — that is a fine tribute. But John wouldn’t want us to stop there, just trying to get back to where we already were. Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better, by making sure every American is automatically registered to vote — including former inmates who’ve earned their second chance. By adding polling places and expanding early voting and making election day a national holiday so if you are somebody who is working in a factory or you are a single mom who’s gotta go to her job and then get time off, you can still cast your ballot. By guaranteeing every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. They’re Americans. By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering so all voters have the power to choose their politicians, not the other way around. And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster — another Jim Crow relic in order to secure the God-given rights of every American — then that’s what we should do.’
He also criticized lawmakers who have “unleashed a flood of laws designed specifically to make voting hard, especially by the way state legislators where there’s a lot of minority turnout.”
“That’s not necessarily a mystery or an accident,” he said, adding that it was “an attack on what John fought for, an attack on our democratic freedoms. And we should treat it as such.”
Obama also seemed to throw shade at top Republicans like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who was not in attendance at the funeral. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, spoke earlier during the service.)
“If politicians want to honor John — and I’m so grateful for the legacy and work of all the congressional leaders who are here — there’s a better way than a statement calling him a hero. You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for,” Obama said, receiving a standing ovation from those in attendance.
The former president also acknowledged that he might be criticized for focusing on politics during Lewis’s eulogy, but emphasized he was doing so in honor of Lewis, who risked his life for equality.
“I know this is a celebration of John’s life. There are some who might say we shouldn’t dwell on such things. But that’s why I’m talking about it,” he said. “John Lewis devoted his time on this earth fighting the very attacks on democracy and what’s best in America that we’re seeing circulate right now.”
Obama also outlined some of Lewis’s biggest stands against oppression and segregation, including when he and Bernard Lafayette boarded a Greyhound bus and sat in the front.
“At every stop through the night, apparently the angry driver stormed out of the bus into the bus station, and John and Bernard had no idea what he might come back with. Or who he might come back with. Nobody was there to protect them,” Obama said.
He continued: “John was only 20 years old. But he pushed all 20 of those years to the center of the table, betting everything, all of it, that his example could challenge centuries of conventions and generations of brutal violence. . . suffered by African-Americans.”
Obama also noted that Lewis, at 23, was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington, and “at the ripe old age of 25″ led the Selma to Montgomery march, in what was later referred to as “Bloody Sunday” due to the way law enforcement beat the peaceful demonstrators.
“We know what happened to the marchers that day,” Obama said. “Their bones were cracked by billy clubs, their eyes, lungs choked with tear gas. They knelt to pray, which made their heads easier targets, and John was struck in the skull. And he thought he was going to die, surrounded by the sight of young Americans gagging, bleeding, and trampled. Victims in their own country. State-sponsored violence.”
Obama then described how the protesters were able to eventually successfully march to Montgomery, which became a catalyst for major change.
“Their words reached the White House. And Lyndon Johnson, son of the South, said, ‘We shall overcome.’ And the Voting Rights Act was signed into law,” Obama said.
He said that Lewis “has brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals,” and described him as “an American whose faith was tested again and again to produce a man of pure joy, and unbreakable perseverance.”
“The life of John Lewis was in so many ways exceptional,” Obama said. “And someday when we do finish that long journey towards freedom, when we do form a more perfect union, whether it’s 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.”
Obama was one of three former presidents who memorialized Lewis at the funeral service in Atlanta: George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also delivered moving speeches about the congressman.
Christina Prignano of the Globe staff contributed to this report.