ATLANTA — Hailed as a “founding father” of a fairer, better United States, John Lewis was eulogized Thursday by three former presidents and others who urged Americans to continue the work of the civil rights icon in fighting injustice during a moment of racial reckoning.
The longtime member of Congress even issued his own call to action — in an essay written in his final days that he asked be published in The New York Times on the day of his funeral. In it, he challenged the next generation to lay “down the heavy burdens of hate at last.”
After nearly a week of observances that took Lewis’ body from his birthplace in Alabama to the nation’s capital to his final resting place in Atlanta, mourners in face masks to guard against the coronavirus spread out across pews Thursday at the city’s landmark Ebenezer Baptist Church, once pastored by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Former President Barack Obama called Lewis “a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance” during a fiery eulogy that was both deeply personal and political. The nation’s first Black president used the moment to issue a stark warning that the voting rights and equal opportunity Lewis championed were threatened by those “doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting” and to call for a renewal of the Voting Rights Act.
“He as much as anyone in our history brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals,” Obama said of Lewis. “And some day 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.”
Former President George W. Bush said Lewis, who died July 17 at the age of 80, preached the Gospel and lived its ideals, “insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope.”
Former President Jimmy Carter sent written condolences, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recalled how the sky was filled with ribbons of color in Washington earlier this week while Lewis’ body was lying in state at the U.S. Capitol.
Lewis was the youngest and last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, led by King. He was best known for leading protesters in the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where he was beaten by Alabama state troopers.