A loud shout of cheers went up outside of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where crowds watching on a big-screen television Thursday rose from their lawn chairs and makeshift seats as former President Barack Obama approached the famous pulpit to deliver the eulogy for Rep. John Lewis.
Inside the historic building where mourners observed social distancing guidelines that prevented an above-capacity gathering, the crowd rose in unison as Obama declared Lewis a “founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America.”
The former president spoke fervently about Lewis’ battle to secure rights — including voting rights — for African Americans and, by extension, all United States citizens.
“Congressman John Lewis devoted his time on this Earth fighting the very attacks on democracy we’re seeing circulate right now,” Obama said.
Though he didn’t call him out by name, Obama blasted President Donald Trump, who has decried mail-in voting and earlier in the day tweeted his desire to postpone the November election because voting by mail would allow for “foreign interference.”
“The fate of this democracy depends on how we use it. It isn’t automatic,” Obama said. “It has to be nurtured, it has to be tended to. We have to work at it. It’s hard.”
Lewis, the venerable lawmaker and civil rights icon who represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District on Capitol Hill for more than three decades, died July 17 after a long bout with pancreatic cancer. He was 80.
Gospel legend BeBe Winans performed “Good Trouble,” a song he wrote in honor of Lewis, who often referred to his and other civil rights leaders’ activism as “good trouble.”
Sheila Lewis O’Brien, the late congressman’s niece, told the gathering that her uncle enjoyed sharing laughter and love with his family.
“While we knew how important he and his work was to the world, when we were with him, we saw Uncle Robert,” O’Brien said. “We saw the man who enjoyed spending time with his family, ribbing us about days gone by, catching up on family dynamics, enjoying a good meal, and sharing laughter and love.”
Former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell also spoke at the more than three-hour service.
“They say that the victors write history, and so I declare today that the history of the 20th century as it is written, John Lewis will stand beside Gandhi and King and Mandela as one of the great transformative freedom fighters of humankind,” Campbell said.
All eyes were on Obama.
The former president noted that he owed a great debt to Lewis and the late congressman’s “forceful vision of freedom, calling him Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “greatest disciple.”
Obama called on lawmakers to pass a new federal voting rights act that House Democrats recently renamed in honor of Lewis.
“Someday when we do finish that long journey towards freedom, when we do form a more perfect union — 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,” Obama said.
“What a gift John Lewis was. We are all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while — and show us the way,” he said.
As an honor guard led Lewis’ casket out of the church, those inside paid a final tribute to the civil rights icon by dancing to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” one of the late congressman’s favorite tunes.
Lewis was buried at Southview Cemetery next to his wife of more than 40 years, Lillian.