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John Lewis, a man of ‘unbreakable perseverance,’ laid to rest

Former President Barack Obama speaks during the funeral of late Representative and civil rights leader John Lewis at the State Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia on Thursday.
Former President Barack Obama speaks during the funeral of late Representative and civil rights leader John Lewis at the State Capitol in Atlanta, Georgia on Thursday.ALYSSA POINTER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

ATLANTA — Three former presidents and dozens of other dignitaries were drawn to Ebenezer Baptist Church on Thursday to bid farewell to John Lewis, a giant of Congress and the civil rights era whose courageous protests guaranteed him a place in American history. But even as the funeral looked back over Lewis’s long life, it also focused very much on the tumultuous state of affairs in the country today.

The most pointed eulogy came from former President Barack Obama, who issued a blistering critique of the Trump administration, the brutality of police officers toward Black people, and efforts to limit the right to vote that Lewis had shed his blood to secure.

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The political tone of the ceremony came as little surprise. Lewis, who died July 17 at age 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, had spent more than three decades in Congress as a thorn in the side of Republican administrations. And he and President Trump had traded public slights since before Trump took office.

Obama compared Lewis to an Old Testament prophet and credited him with directly paving the way for the nation’s first Black president. He also took aim at the forces that he said were working against the equality for Black Americans and other oppressed people that Lewis had spent a lifetime championing.

“Bull Connor may be gone,” Obama said, referring to the 1960s-era public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Ala., who turned fire hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters. “But today, we witness, with our own eyes, police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans.”

George Wallace, the Alabama governor who endorsed segregation and used racist language, may also be gone, Obama continued. “But we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”

And while insuperable poll tests for Black people may be a thing of the past, Obama said, “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.”

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The critique elicited a torrent of applause from the invitation-only audience at Ebenezer Baptist Church, the famed institution that Lewis attended and where Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis’s mentor and ally, once preached.

The mourners, masked to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, were strategically limited in number to ensure social distancing. Some took their seats as an organist played “We Shall Overcome,” a protest anthem sung by Lewis countless times during his nonviolent confrontations with segregationist forces in the South who beat and injured him on several occasions.

In death, Lewis drew a bipartisan crowd, including former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, although Trump did not attend. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and dozens of members of Congress were also at the three-hour service, presided over by Ebenezer’s pastor, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, who is running as a Democrat for a Senate seat.

Bush gave a short, warm speech in which he praised Lewis’s Christian faith and recalled working with him to establish the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

“Listen, John and I had our disagreements, of course,” said Bush, a Republican. “But 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.”

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The line was as well-received as Bush himself: Warnock noted that Bush was president “the last time we reauthorized the Voting Rights Act.” It was a markedly different tone from the 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King, King’s widow, in which numerous speakers criticized the Bush administration while Bush, then in his second term, looked on.

Clinton called Lewis “a man I loved for a long time” and someone who was “on a mission that was bigger than personal ambition.”

He also said that Lewis had learned a lesson after he was asked by other civil rights leaders to tone down a fiery speech that he had written for the March on Washington in August 1963.

“He listened to people that he knew had the same goals say, ‘Well, we have to be careful how we say this because we’re trying to get converts, not more adversaries.’ ”