John Lewis was remembered Thursday for his lifelong dedication to civil rights, as three former presidents memorialized the late congressman and the inspiration he provided to generations.
“America was built by John Lewises,” former President Barack Obama said. “He, as much as anyone in or history, brought this country a little closer to our highest ideals.”
“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,” he said.
Thursday’s funeral at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta that Martin Luther King Jr. once led marks the end of six days of memorial services, from Washington, D.C., to Alabama and Georgia, for the civil rights icon.
During his own tribute to the late lawmaker, former President George W. Bush recounted Mr. Lewis‘ early days on a farm in Alabama and how he used to preach to the chickens.
“Going hungry was his first act of nonviolent protest,” he joked.
The Republican former president highlighted how he and Mr. Lewis, a Democrat, clashed over the course of their political careers.
“John and I had our disagreements, of course. 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,” he said. “We live in a better and nobler country today because of John Lewis and his abiding faith in the power of God, in the power of democracy and in the power of love to lift us all to a higher ground.”
Mr. Lewis died July 17 at the age of 80 of pancreatic cancer. A representative from Georgia’s 5th District, he had served in Congress for more than 30 years.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi remembered Mr. Lewis for the dedication he brought to his work in Congress. She described a lawmaker with a “twinkle in his eye,” who could be “mischievous” if necessary, citing the time he led a sit-in to demand a vote on a gun control bill.
“When he did that and all the members followed him — the floor was covered with people — and we thought for a moment that perhaps the police might [arrest him], because it was disruptive good trouble. It was clear to them that if they were to arrest John Lewis for doing that they would like to have to arrest the entire House Democratic Caucus,” she said.
The California Democrat grew emotional during her eulogy, recounting one of the last moments she shared with Mr. Lewis, when she gave him her American flag pin on the Fourth of July that was engraved with the phrase “One country, One destiny.”
Mr. Lewis, a son of sharecroppers, became one of the youngest leaders in the civil rights movement, working alongside Martin Luther King Jr. as a protege. His efforts were instrumental in convincing Congress to pass the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act.
He was one of the original Freedom Riders in 1961, jailed for multiple nonviolent protests, and was assaulted at the infamous “Bloody Sunday” clash between protesters and law enforcement on Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
Mr. Obama recounted how Mr. Lewis and a friend helped spur the first Freedom Rides, buying a ticket as soon as they could once the Supreme Court ruled segregated bus facilities unconstitutional.
“Imagine the courage of two people Malia’s age — younger than my eldest daughter — on their own, to challenge an entire infrastructure of oppression. John was only 20 years old,” Mr. Obama said.
“What a revolutionary notion, this idea that any of us ordinary people, a young kid from Troy, can stand up to the powers and principalities and say ‘No, this isn’t right,’” he said.
In 1963, Mr. Lewis was one of the youngest speakers at the March on Washington, addressing the crowds at the Lincoln Memorial.
His final public appearance was at the Black Lives Matter Plaza last month.
Former President Bill Clinton described Mr. Lewis‘ sacrifices as an activist, highlighting in particular how he was nearly beaten to death in Selma. But, Mr. Clinton emphasized, Mr. Lewis never let the violence lead him to hatred.
“He got into a lot of good trouble along the way, but let’s not forget he also developed an absolutely uncanny ability to heal troubled waters,” Mr. Clinton said. “When he could have been angry and determined to cancel his adversaries, he tried to get converts instead. He thought the open hand was better than the clenched fist.”
Mr. Lewis addressed the nation one last time in an op-ed he wrote before his death about the current tensions in America, which The New York Times published Thursday to mark his funeral.
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe,” Mr. Lewis wrote. “In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”
Mr. Clinton said these final words from Mr. Lewis were “marching orders” for the American public.
Activist and nonviolence advocate the Rev. James Lawson and the Rev. Dr. Bernice King, CEO of The King Center and daughter of King, said Mr. Lewis championed radical justice and they both highlighted several of the issues close to his heart, including the Black Lives Matter movement, changes to policing policies, expanded voting rights and income inequality.
“Grant us, finally, Father God, that — a double portion to get into good trouble until love becomes the way we live, the way we lead, the way we legislate and until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” the Rev. King said.
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