Ex-presidents honor Lewis's contributions to nation at funeral

Ex-presidents honor Lewis's contributions to nation at funeral
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Every living former president was present or represented at the Thursday funeral of the late Rep. John LewisJohn LewisBill Maher delivers mock eulogy for Trump Hillary Clinton touts student suspended over crowded hallway photo: 'John Lewis would be proud' Maxine Waters expresses confidence Biden will pick Black woman as VP MORE (D-Ga.) at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, capping off a week of tributes to the late civil rights icon.

Each of the former leaders spoke about Lewis's lifelong dedication to civil rights, equality and the ways in which Americans could honor the late lawmaker during a time when racial injustice continues to be at the forefront of national debate. 

Lewis died July 18 at the age of 80, months after he announced that he was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and was undergoing treatment.

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Former President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhy payroll tax cut opponents may want to reconsider Michelle Obama, Sanders, Kasich to be featured on first night of Democratic convention: report Graham says he appreciates Trump orders, but 'would much prefer a congressional agreement' MORE (D) called for concrete policy changes as a way of honoring Lewis’s legacy. The former president called for the passage of a bill restoring a provision of the Voting Rights Act.

"If politicians want to honor John...there's a better way than a statement calling him a hero,” Obama said. “You want to honor John? Let's honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for."

Before his storied career as a Georgia congressman, Lewis engaged in civil rights activism by organizing sit-ins at local diners in Tennessee while he was a student at Fisk University. In 1961, Lewis was also part of the Freedom Riders, protesting segregation on busses and refusing to leave seats that were designated for white patrons. During these protests, he faced angry mobs, fire bombs and violence from the Ku Klux Klan. 

“It was very violent. I thought I was going to die. I was left lying at the Greyhound bus station in Montgomery unconscious,” Lewis told CNN while reflecting on the Freedom Rides 40 years later.

In 1965, Lewis was brutally beaten when he led the Bloody Sunday march across the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Ala. Shortly afterward, outrage from the scenes at the bridge prompted lawmakers to pass the landmark Voting Rights Act. 

Obama also called for several other major expansions of voting rights, including making election day a federal holiday, full restoration of voting rights to ex-convicts; full enfranchisement of Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., residents; and automatic voter registration.

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He added that Congress should eliminate the filibuster, which he called a “Jim Crow” relic, if necessary to accomplish the reforms.

Former President George W. Bush cited Lewis’s own biography, including his stories of preaching to his family’s flock of chickens as a boy in Troy, Ala.

“From Troy to the sit-ins of Nashville, to the Freedom Rides to the March on Washington, from Freedom Summer to Selma, John Lewis always looked outward, not inward,” Bush said. “He always believed in preaching the gospel in word and in deed, insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope.”

Former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden painted into a basement 'Rose Garden strategy' corner Giuliani says Black Lives Matter is 'domestic terrorist' group We have the resources to get through this crisis, only stupidity is holding us back MORE praised Lewis’ record of getting into “good trouble”— Lewis’s term for civil disobedience.

“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.

Clinton directly invoked an essay Lewis wrote shortly before his death, which the New York Times published Thursday.

In the essay, Lewis reminisced about the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi when Lewis was 15. The late congressman compared it to the deaths of George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Breonna Taylor and other Black people whose deaths have galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.

He also called on modern-day activists to get into, “good trouble, necessary trouble” and help “to redeem the soul of America.”

Former President Jimmy CarterJimmy CarterPresidents, crises and revelations Trump: Obama's eulogy of John Lewis a 'terrible,' 'angry' speech Big bank hypocrisy: inconsistent morals to drive consistent profits MORE, who was not present at the funeral, issued a statement to be read by Rev. Raphael Warnock.

“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,” Carter said in the letter. “While his achievements are enjoyed by all Americans, we Georgians know him as our neighbor, friend and representative. His enormous contribution will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come.”

Rev. James Lawson, a civil rights luminary who trained Lewis and many of the movement's other leaders in nonviolent resistance tactics, echoed Obama’s call to fight for Lewis’ values.

“John Lewis practiced the politics that we the people of the U.S. need more desperately than ever before — the politics of the Declaration of Independence, the politics of the preamble to the Constitution of the United States," Lawson said.

“We need the Congress and the president to work unfalteringly on behalf of every boy and every girl so that every baby born on these shores will have access to the tree of life,” Lawson continued. “That’s the only way to honor John Robert Lewis. No other way.” 

House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiWhite House officials, Democrats spar over legality, substance of executive orders Sunday shows - Trump coronavirus executive orders reverberate Pelosi: 'Of course there's room for compromise' on 0-per-week unemployment benefit MORE (D-Calif.), who worked with Lewis in the House for 33 years, compared Lewis to Abraham Lincoln. She noted that the platform on which Lewis’ casket lay in state in the Capitol rotunda was first built after Lincoln’s assassination.

Pelosi praised Lewis’ use of stories about his own experiences in the civil rights movement to educate colleagues, saying “[w]hen John Lewis served with us, he wanted us to see the civil rights movement and the rest through his eyes.”

“He told us so many stories, he taught us so much, and he took us to Selma for two decades,” she added.

Public funeral services for him began in Troy, Ala., with subsequent services held at the Selma, Ala., Brown Chapel AME Church.

His casket was carried over Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge before lying in state at the state capitol in Montgomery. He then lay in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda from July 27-28.

Aris Folley contributed to this report.