Barack Obama delivered a passionate tribute to the late John Lewis at his funeral on Thursday afternoon, saying the civil rights icon fought relentlessly to defend democracy and the best interests of his country.
Speaking at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the former president began by noting the building’s history with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was a co-pastor there from 1960 until his death in 1968. Obama then said Lewis was possibly King’s “finest disciple.”
“He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, a longing to do what’s right, a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect.”
Obama talked about the civil rights work Lewis did dating back to his involvement in the 1960 Nashville campaigns, when the future congressman was just 20 years old. Lewis and a few of his Black peers sat on the white side of a segregated lunch counter in the Tennessee city, and were welcomed by milkshakes being poured over their heads and cigarettes getting extinguished onto their backs.
After months of perseverance, the demonstrations in Nashville eventually led to the first successful desegregation actions of public facilities of any major southern city.
The progress came at a cost for Lewis, as Obama noted.
“John got a taste of jail for the first, second, third, well, several times,” he said.
But the events in Nashville were just the beginning, as Obama went on to list several other accolades Lewis achieved from a young age. These included speaking to 250,000 people at the 1963 march on Washington, helping to organize Mississippi’s Freedom Summer the following year, and leading the march from Selma to Washington when he was just 25 years old.
Obama also talked about his work on Capitol Hill, where Lewis served 33 years as U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th District.
“As a Congressman he didn’t rest. He kept getting himself arrested as an old man. He didn’t sit out any fight. Sat in all night long of the United States Capitol.”
Obama said he was proud to call Lewis a friend, explaining the two met when the 44th president was in law school at Harvard. After Lewis gave a speech to students on campus, the future president approached him afterward and told the Alabama native how much he was an inspiration to him.
The next time they would come in contact, Obama noted, was when he was first elected to the Illinois Senate in 1997.
“I told him I’m here because of you,” he said.
The two then connected once again at Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2009, where they shared a hug and the newly sworn in commander-in-chief told Lewis “this is your day too.”
Obama then talked about the last time he spoke with the congressman, a virtual town hall held over Zoom to bring together young activists who have helped lead recent demonstrations after the death of George Floyd. Some of the final words he was able to say to him before his passing were of the utmost praise.
“All those young people, John, of every race and every religion, from every background and gender and sexual orientation, John, those are your children. They learned from your example. Even if they didn’t always know it.”