President Barack Obama gave the eulogy at John Lewis’s funeral, held at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Thursday. During the first half of the 40-minute speech, the former president spoke emotionally about the life and career of the civil rights icon. But in the latter portion of the eulogy, Obama spoke to some of what is currently ailing America—specifically the unjust way peaceful protesters are being treated by the federal government and the ongoing voter suppression efforts by President Trump and Republicans.
Obama talked about an always evolving America and how heroes like John Lewis give new generations purpose to further righteous causes.
“You know, this country is a constant work in progress. We’re born with instructions to form a more perfect union. Explicit in those words is the idea that we’re imperfect. That what gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further than any might have thought possible… [Lewis] not only embraced that responsibility, but he made it his life’s work. Which isn’t bad for a ‘Boy from Troy,’” Obama said, referring to Lewis by the nickname given to him by Martin Luther King, Jr., when the two first met in 1958.
The former president connected Lewis’ knowledge of the fragility of progress to the current environment and scourge of police brutality.
Obama said Lewis “knew from his own life that progress is fragile, that we have to be vigilant against the darker currents of this country’s history. Of our own history. Where there are whirlpools of violence and hatred and despair that can always rise again.” He continued, “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 then torched the current president and Republicans for consistently casting doubt on the election process and overtly attempting to suppress voting nationwide.
“We may no longer have to guess the number of jellybeans 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 the runup to an election that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots, so people don’t get sick,” the former president said.
Obama also acknowledged that because today’s gathering was meant to honor Lewis’ life, some would frown upon any negative talk about today’s cultural and political environments. To that, the former president said Lewis wouldn’t have it any other way.
“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. 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. He knew that every single one of us has a God-given power and that the faith of this democracy depends on how we use it. That democracy isn’t automatic. It has to be nurtured. It has to be tended to. We have to work at it. It’s hard,” Obama said.
The former president continued, “And so he knew that it depends on whether we summoned a measure, just a measure of John’s moral courage to question what’s right and what’s wrong. And call things as they are. He said that as long as he had a breath in his body, he would do everything he could to preserve this democracy and as long as we have breath in our bodies, we had to continue his cause.”
Obama spoke at length about the Voting Rights Act and how the Supreme Court stripped away many of its protections, calling it “an attack on what John fought for.”
“Once the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act, some state legislators unleashed a flood of laws designed specifically to make voting harder, especially, by the way, state legislators where there’s a lot of minority turnout and population growth. That’s not necessarily a mystery or an accident. It was an attack on what John fought for. It was an attack on our democratic freedoms, and we should treat it as such,” Obama said.
Obama called on lawmakers to strengthen the law and not just serve platitudes.
“If politicians want to honor John—and I’m so grateful for the legacy and work of all the congressional leaders who are here—but there’s a better way than a statement calling him a hero. You want to honor John?” Obama asked. “Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for. And by the way, naming 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.”
Obama then endorsed a slew of measures that would make it easier for Americans to vote. He also said that voting rights should be expanded to residents in D.C. and Puerto Rico, saying, “They’re Americans.”
“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,” Obama said, “By adding polling places and expanding early voting and making Election Day a national holiday, so if you are somebody who’s working in a factory or you’re a single mom, who’s got to go to her job and doesn’t get time off, you can still cast your ballot. By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C., and in Puerto Rico. They’re Americans.”
Obama continued, “By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering so that 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.”
The former president also talked about personal responsibility and the need for people not to be cynical, saying, “We can’t treat voting as an errand to run if we have some time. We have to treat it as the most important action we can take on behalf of democracy, and like John, we have to give it all we have.”
Obama wrapped his stirring speech by focusing on what Lewis embodied in his lifetime, as opposed to what the current administration embodies: “Not by sowing hatred and division but by spreading love and truth.”
“That’s what John Lewis teaches us,” Obama said. “That’s where real courage comes from, not from turning on each other, but by turning towards one another. Not by sowing hatred and division but by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance and discovering that, in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.”
He concluded, “What a gift John Lewis was. We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while and show us the way. God bless you all. God bless America. God bless this gentle soul who pulled it closer to its promise. Thank you very much.”