On Thursday, mourners honored civil rights icon and longtime Rep. John Lewis in Atlanta. At his funeral ceremony, the first Black president of the United States, Barack Obama, gave a eulogy that served both to pay tribute to one of the greatest leaders of the American civil rights movement and call for specific action to carry on that legacy. It will likely go down as one of Obama’s greatest speeches, and it is worth watching in full.
You can watch it here.
In a speech that was almost surprising in its frank invocation of politics, Obama compared the brutal 1965 violence that nearly ended Lewis’ life—police fractured his skull on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama—to the violent suppression of peaceful protests by federal officers today, called the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to gut the Voting Rights Act and the wave of voter suppression that followed “an attack on what John fought for,” challenged hypocritical congressional leaders who have opposed a renewal of “the law that [Lewis] was willing to die for” while issuing empty statements calling him a “hero,” called for the end to the disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated people, called for making Election Day a national holiday, called for statehood for D.C. and Puerto Rico, and called for “eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American.”
The barn burner of a political speech followed a powerful retelling of some of the highlights of Lewis’ life and career, a narrative that laid the groundwork for Obama’s call to action. It seemed clear that Obama was devastated by the death of a man he called a mentor.
“It is a great honor to be back at 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 near the start of his remarks, his voice nearly breaking.
“I’ve come here today, because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom,” Obama continued.
Obama then described Lewis’ rise from a place of “modest means” in rural Troy, Alabama, where, as a boy, he eavesdropped on his father’s discussions with friends about the murderous violence of the local Ku Klux Klan. As Obama described, after hearing King speak on the radio, Lewis became one of the greatest advocates for nonviolent resistance this country has seen.
Obama’s was one of the finest funeral orations by an American president—a tribute to Lewis’ life and a specific, actionable plea to protect the rights for which he and so many others fought and bled. History will determine whether his call—and that of Lewis—has been heard in the United States.