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John Lewis funeral: Obama pays tribute to congressman's fight against injustice

Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush also attended

Former President Barack Obama, addresses the service during the funeral for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Thursday, July 30, 2020. AP
Former President Barack Obama, addresses the service during the funeral for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Thursday, July 30, 2020. AP

Former US president Barack Obama called on people to follow John Lewis’s example to fight injustice as he paid tribute at the late congressman and black rights hero’s funeral on Thursday.

Other former presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush also joined in the eulogies for Lewis at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church after nearly a week of mourning.

During those days, a procession took his body from his birthplace in Alabama, to the nation’s capital of Washington, and to his final resting place in his home of Atlanta.

Lewis was “a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance", Mr Obama said in a rousing speech in which he connected Lewis’s legacy to the continuing fight against those trying to discourage people from voting.

He said that he “owed a great debt” to Lewis, who died on July 17 at the age of 80.

Lewis was the last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists, led by the Rev Martin Luther King Jr.

“America was built by John Lewises," Mr Obama said. "He as much as anyone in our history brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals.

“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 Republican president George W Bush said Lewis preached the Gospel and lived its ideals, “insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope".

Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, recalled that while Lewis’s body was lying in state at the US Capitol this week, a double rainbow appeared.

“There was this double rainbow over the casket,” Ms Pelosi said. “He was telling us, ‘I’m home in heaven, I’m home in heaven.’

"We always knew he worked on the side of angels, and now he is with them.”

His legacy of activism has been tied to Ebenezer’s former pastor, the Rev Martin Luther King Jr, whose sermons Lewis discovered while scanning the radio dial as a 15-year-old growing up in segregated Alabama.

King continued to inspire Lewis’s civil rights work for the next 65 years as he fought segregation during sometimes bloody marches, Greyhound bus “freedom rides” across the South and later during his long tenure in the US Congress.

“Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America,” Lewis said of his run-ins with the law.

The phrase was repeated several times at the funeral.

“We will continue to get into good trouble as long as you grant us the breath to do so,” one of King’s daughters, the Rev Bernice King, said as she led the congregation in prayer.

Ebenezer’s senior pastor, the Rev Raphael Warnock, told the congregation: “Here lies a true American patriot who risked his life for the hope and promise of democracy."

Outside the church, hundreds gathered to watch the service on a large screen. Some sang the gospel song We shall Overcome.

King was “the person who, more than any other, continued to influence my life, who made me who I was", Lewis wrote in his 1998 autobiography, Walking with the Wind.

By the summer of 1963, he was addressing thousands of people during the March on Washington, where King gave his “I have a Dream” speech.

Lewis spoke about black people being beaten by police and jailed, themes that resonate vividly in today’s times.

“My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution,” Lewis told the huge crowd on the Washington Mall.

“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now.

"We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again.”

In 1965, Lewis was beaten by Alabama state troopers in the city of Selma in what became known as “Bloody Sunday".

Last Sunday, his casket was carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.

His wagon rolled over a carpet of rose petals on the bridge that spans the Alabama River.

On the south side of the bridge, where Lewis was attacked by the police, the carriage rolled over red roses placed by family members, marking the spot where he spilled his blood and suffered a head injury.

Lewis was later awarded the Medal of Freedom by Mr Obama, the nation’s first black president, in 2011.

He spent more than three decades in Congress, and his district included most of Atlanta.

Updated: July 31, 2020 01:21 AM

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