Former President Obama excoriated President Trump and his administration during his fiery eulogy for the late John Lewis by calling out efforts to stifle voting and slamming the use of tear gas on peaceful protesters by federal agents.
Speaking in front of the American flag-draped casket bearing Lewis’ body at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Thursday, Obama said the late civil rights activist had dedicated his life to ‘fighting the very attacks on democracy’ that ‘we’re seeing circulate right now.’
Not mentioning Trump by name, Obama said the electoral system was currently under attack by Republicans trying to suppress the minority vote and Trump’s repeated attacks on mail-in voting.
‘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 run up to an election. It’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick,’ he said.
Obama said Americans should be automatically registered to vote, including inmates, and declared that election day should be a national holiday to ensure everyone can get to a polling place.
His criticisms came just hours after Trump suggested delaying the 2020 election over claims of ‘mail-in fraud’ – a power he does not have.
During his 41-minute eulogy, Obama also compared Trump to former Alabama Gov George Wallace and slammed the government for recent scenes in which federal agents have tear gassed protesters.
‘Bull Conner may be gone, but today, we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of black Americans,’ he said. ‘George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.’
Trump used troops to clear protesters from Lafayette Square outside the White House and sent federal agents recently into Portland, Oregon.
Obama said he owed a great debt to his ‘mentor’ and his forceful vision of freedom and that Lewis would be a ‘founding father of a fuller, better, fairer America’.
He said Lewis was an American whose faith had been tested ‘again and again to produce a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance’.
Americans like John… liberated all of us. America was built by people like them. America was built by the John Lewises,’ Obama said.
‘He as much as anyone brought this country closer to our highest ideals. And someday when we do finish that long journey toward freedom, 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.’
Earlier, former President George W. Bush told mourners at that Americans live in a ‘better and nobler country today’ because of him, while Bill Clinton urged the US to follow in the civil rights icon’s footsteps.
Politicians, dignitaries and other mourners filed into the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Thursday to honor the life and legacy of the longtime Congressman.
Both Bush and Clinton both spoke of Lewis’ humble beginnings on a farm in Troy, Alabama, to becoming a leader of the civil rights movement and ultimately the man known as the ‘conscience of Congress’.
Bush was the first of the three presidents to speak of Lewis, telling mourners: ‘John and I had our disagreements but in the America John Lewis fought for and the America I believe in, differences in opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action.
‘We the people, including Congressman and Presidents, can have differing views on how to perfect our union while sharing the conviction that our nation, however flawed, is a good and noble one.
‘We live in a better and nobler country today because of John Lewis and his abiding faith in the power of God, the power of democracy and in the power of love to lift us all to a higher ground.’
Describing Lewis’ character, Bush said: ‘He always thought of others; he always thought of preaching the gospel, in word and in deed, insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope. John Lewis believed in the Lord, he believed in humanity and he believed in America.’
Former President Bill Clinton praised Lewis’ civil rights efforts of the decades, saying he had an ‘uncanny ability to heal troubled waters’.
‘John Lewis was a walking rebuke to people who thought, ‘Well we ain’t there yet, we’ve been working a long time, isn’t it time to bag it?’ He kept moving. He hoped for, and imagined, and lived and worked and moved for his beloved community,’ Clinton said.
‘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. 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.
‘It is so fitting on the day of his service, he leaves us our marching orders – keep moving,’ Clinton added, referencing Lewis’ final words that were published posthumously in the New York Times on Thursday.
‘I just loved him. I always will, and I’m so grateful that he stayed true to form: He’s gone off yonder and left us with marching orders,’ Clinton said. ‘I suggest… since he’s close enough to God to keep his eyes on the sparrow and us… we salute, suit up, and march on.’
House Nancy Pelosi also spoke, recalling how Lewis’ body was lying in state at the US Capitol earlier this week, and a double rainbow appeared.
‘There was this double rainbow over the casket,’ she 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.’
She went on to say Lewis bought his experience fighting for civil rights to Washington.
‘He insisted on the truth in the Congress of the United States,’ she said. ‘When John Lewis served with us, he wanted us to see the civil rights movement and the rest through his eyes.’
‘He wanted us to see how important it was, how important it was to understand the spirit of nonviolence.’
President Trump, who did not visit the late Congressman’s body as it lied in state this week, did not attend the funeral.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several other members of Congress were among the mourners who took their seats in front of an American flag-draped casket at the historic church where Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.
Before the funeral began, the church bells rang 80 times to signify the number of years Lewis was alive.
Shortly before he died, Lewis wrote an essay for The New York Times and asked that it be published on the day of his funeral.
In the essay, Lewis called on the nation to come together for justice and equality.
‘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,’ Lewis 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.’
He also recalled the teachings of King: ‘He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice,’ Lewis wrote. ‘He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out.
‘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,’ Lewis added. ‘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.’