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Obama Compares Trump Administration to '60s Civil Rights Movement in John Lewis Eulogy

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Obama Compares Trump Administration to '60s Civil Rights Movement in John Lewis Eulogy

2020-07-31 10:51:53

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: Barack Obama (Image source: Screenshot)


The late Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) had a fitting farewell on Thursday, two weeks after he passed away from pancreatic cancer. Former President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy, fittingly making comparisons between efforts of the Trump administration and the 60s civil rights movement — fitting, because Lewis had fought for civil rights when he was just 20 years old and live to stand on Black Lives Matter Plaza.

But first, the Rev. Raphael Warnock began the service for Lewis, with "much political cynicism and narcissism" going on in the country, telling those gathered, "here lies a true American patriot." The officiant is a senior pastor at the church that was once presided over by Martin Luther King. He's also a Democratic candidate in the race for a Senate seat in Georgia.

Obama gave a direction in his eulogy for Congress to pass the new voting rights laws. This was a pet project of Lewis's. The House has passed the bill, but it's sitting in the Senate, waiting to be heard.

He made comparisons to Lewis's life as a young man when he was a Freedom Rider to the protests going on across the country after the death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

"Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans," said Obama. "George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators."

"We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans 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."

Obama never had to be obvious in the way he connected the 60s civil rights movements to the efforts of the Trump administration to suppress the rights of Black Americans and Lewis's place in both situations. It was all right there.

He accused the current administration of "even undermining the Postal Service" as an attempt to block people from voting. He didn't name the presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden, yet still urged voters to elect him and give the Senate majority to the Democrats. He also urged for the filibuster to be abolished in the Senate so that the voting rights bill of Lewis's could be advanced. "A Jim Crow relic," he said.

What would a Lewis eulogy be without a mention of his first freedom ride on a bus? "Imagine the courage of two people Malia's age, younger than my oldest daughter, on their own," said Obama. "John was only 20 years old. But he pushed all 20 of those years to the center of the table, betting everything — all of it — that his example could challenge centuries of convention and generations of brutal violence."

Obama mentioned that seeing Lewis's dream of a better nation still may be many years away, but the late congressman left the foundation behind for it to happen. "John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America," he said.

While former President Jimmy Carter is too frail to travel, two other living presidents — George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — made the trip to honor Lewis. The only living president not to attend was Donald Trump.

With the service taking place just hours after Trump suggested in a tweet that the presidential election be delayed because of his mistrust of mail-in voting, those speaking at Lewis's funeral used the tweet to encourage people to vote.

"Keep moving tot he ballot box, even if it's a mailbox," said Clinton.

Clinton, who is also the husband of Hillary Clinton, who lost to Trump in 2016, knocked Trump for hinting lately that he may not accept the results in November if he loses. He compared it to Lewis accepting a defeat to an activist who was more aggressive and won the right to lead the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

"We are here today because he had the kind of character he showed when he lost an election," Clinton said.

He also brought up Lewis's last words, an essay published in The New York Times on Thursday that discussed his last public appearance at the Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington last month. Lewis had asked for it to be published on the day of his funeral.

He wrote that he was admitted to the hospital the day after he visited the plaza, but "I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on."

He wrote about his fight in the civil rights movement and asked others to continue his fight to "redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble."

"When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression, and war," he wrote.

"So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide."

Bush spoke as well, praising his life, from being beaten by state troopers on "Bloody Sunday" in Selma, as he protested for voting rights, to his decades serving in Congress.

"In the America John Lewis fought for, and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable and evidence of democracy in action. We the people, including congressmen and presidents, can have differing views on how to protect our union while sharing the conviction that our nation, however flawed, is at heart a good and noble one," said Bush.

Obama also reflected on his last conversation with Lewis that occurred two days before the congressman appeared at Black Lives Matter Plaza. It was just after they held a Zoom town hall with young activists. Lewis shared with the first Black president how inspired he was by these new activists. 

"John, those are your children," Obama told him.

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