ATLANTA — Rep. John Lewis was mourned, revered and celebrated Thursday at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, a sacred place for many of those who helped to shape civil rights history.
Lewis died July 17 at the age of 80.
Former Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush all spoke at the funeral. Ebenezer’s senior pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, presided over the celebration of life, which was attended by numerous lawmakers and Atlanta leaders including former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell and Ambassador Andrew Young. Given COVID-19 precautions, the funeral was not open to the public. Attendees were required to wear face and mouth coverings.
Channel 2′s Nicole Carr has been following along with Lewis’ 6-day funeral tour since it began in Troy, Alabama last week. She was outside Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Pres. Obama arrived quietly after the service had started, took the lectern at 1:40 p.m to deliver the eulogy.
“It is a great honor to be back in Ebenezer Baptist Church, in the pulpit of its greatest pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to pay my respects to perhaps his finest disciple,” Obama said. “I’ve come here today because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis.”
Obama said Lewis will be remembered as a founding father of the country.
“Someday, when we do finish that long journey towards freedom, when we do form a more perfect union, John Lewis will be a Founding Father of that fuller, fairer, better America,” Obama said.
What started as a remembrance of Lewis’ life became a rallying cry to defend the very thing Lewis’ worked his entire life to champion: voting rights.
“John Lewis devoted his time on this earth fighting the very attacks on democracy and what’s best in American that we’re seeing circulate right now,” Obama said.
“Even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darndest 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,” Obama said.
Obama suggested reviving the Voting Rights Act and naming it after Lewis.
“Extend early voting. Open more polls,” Obama said. “Make Election Day a national holiday so those who would normally have to work would have the day off. You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law he was willing to die for.”
Obama finished to a standing ovation.
“What a gift John Lewis was,” Obama said “We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for awhile and show us the way. God bless you all. God bless America. God bless this gentle soul who pulled it closer to its promise.”
Bush and Clinton also delivered moving tributes to the late congressman.
“Listen John and I had our disagreements of course, but in the America John Lewis fought for, and the America that I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action.” President Bush said.
President Clinton also gave a moving tribute to Lewis.
“I always will and I’m so grateful that he stayed true to form,” Clinton said. “He gone up yonder and left us with marching orders, and I suggest since he’s close enough to God to keep his eye on the sparrow and us, we salute, suit up and march on.”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi teared up in her emotional remembrance of John Lewis: “We come with a flag flown over the Capitol the night that John passed. When this flag flew there... it waved goodbye to John. Our friend, our mentor, our colleague. This beautiful man.”
Deanna Congelio, a spokeswoman for former President Carter and former first lady Rosalynn Carter told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the couple is “not traveling these days” but are sending their condolences in writing. Carter had appointed Lewis to a federal position when president.
Rev. Warnock delivered Carter’s remarks, which read, in part:
“Throughout his remarkable life, John has been a blessing to countless people, and we are proud to be among those whose lives he has touched. While his achievements are enjoyed by all Americans, we Georgians know him as our neighbor, friend and representative. His enormous contributions will be taken to be an inspiration for generations to come.”
One of King’s daughters, the Rev. Bernice King, led the congregation in prayer: “We will continue to get into good trouble as long as you grant us the breath to do so,” she said.
Former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell said one of the last things Lewis said to him, when they knew his days were coming to an end, were about the upcoming presidential election.
“Everyone must vote in November,” Campbell remembers Lewis saying. “It’s the most important election ever.”
In a lighthearted moment, Civil Rights leader Xernona Clayton described how she set up a young Lewis with his future wife, Lillian.
“I said, ‘Girl, listen. This boy is going places,‘” Clayton said.
Lillian Miles Lewis died in 2012.
[PHOTOS: John Lewis through the years]
After the funeral service, Lewis’ body was carried to South View Cemetery, where he was laid to rest next to his wife.
Channel 2′s Tom Regan was there for the emotional interment ceremony, which included a military salute and the release of doves.
At the graveside service, which was attended by a couple hundred people, the final chapter in the sendoff included a 21-gun salute.
An honor guard folded the flag on the representative’s coffin and presented it to his son, John Miles Lewis.
Last Sunday, Lewis’ casket was carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The 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 law officers, family members placed red roses that the carriage rolled over, marking the spot where Lewis spilled his blood and suffered a head injury.
People can post video, photos, songs, or any kind of virtual tribute to Rep. Lewis using #BelovedCommunity or #HumanDignity or leave a written tribute at www.theJohnLewisLegacy.com.
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