Barack Obama Got Political In John Lewis Eulogy! Shouldn't Civil Rights Stay Safely In The Past?
Barack Obama delivered a perfect tribute to John Lewis yesterday at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor in the 1960s. Obama said he was honored to speak from King's pulpit, and to remember
perhaps his finest disciple. An American whose faith was tested again and again, to produce a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance: John Robert Lewis.
Obama did what you'd expect in a eulogy, praising Lewis as a hero of the Civil Rights movement and longtime member of Congress. Then Obama got political, because Lewis's cause isn't simply a matter for the history books. If we want to honor John Lewis, Obama said, we need to continue the work Lewis, King, and all the other heroes of the movement started. It was a beautiful eulogy, and a call for all of us to "keep marching."
Barack Obama's full eulogy at John Lewis's funeral youtu.be
Obama was just four years old when John Lewis was clubbed by Alabama state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965. His eulogy (text here) framed Lewis's activism as a central part of the American experiment:
You know, this country is a constant work in progress. We're born with instructions: to form a more perfect union. Explicit in those words is the idea that we're imperfect. That what gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further than any might have thought possible.
He reviewed the major events Lewis participated in: sit-ins at lunch counters in Nashville, the Freedom Rides, speaking at the March on Washington at the age of 23, leading the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and of course leading the Selma to Montgomery march that left him with a skull fracture and led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. All that followed by 33 years representing his Atlanta district in Congress and continuing to demonstrate and get arrested for things that matter.
Obama marveled at the courage it took when Lewis and a friend, both just 20 years old, "younger than my oldest daughter," bought bus tickets in 1960 and insisted on sitting in the front of a bus, refusing to move. They were testing a Supreme Court decision desegregating interstate travel, well before the later, official Freedom Rides — which Lewis also participated in.
When Obama discussed the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march and Bloody Sunday, when the first attempt to march was turned back by the clubs and tear gas of the state troopers, the eulogy suddenly became very much linked to this summer's protests against police brutality:
I imagine initially that day the troopers thought they'd won the battle. You can imagine the conversations they had afterwards. You can imagine them saying, "Yeah, we showed them." They figured they'd turn the protesters back over the bridge. That they'd kept, they'd preserved a system that denied the basic humanity of their fellow citizens. Except this time there were some cameras there. This time the world saw what happened, bore witness to Black Americans, who were asking for nothing more than to be treated like other Americans, who were not asking for special treatment, just equal treatment, promised to them a century before, and almost another century before that.
John Lewis, Obama said, vindicated that "most American of ideas, the idea that any of us, ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame, can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo." When we see something is wrong, isn't true to what America is supposed to be, we can stand up and say so. Lewis, and so many other Americans, Obama said, were just as much founders of America as the 1776 guys:
America was built by people like them. America was built by John Lewises. He, as much as anyone in our history, brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals. And 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.
As Obama spoke of Lewis's congressional career and his continued commitment to getting into "good trouble" — and urging young people to keep doing that, too — Obama pointed out that America is facing some distressingly familiar situations today:
Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes, police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans. George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.
We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar in order to cast a ballot, but even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darnedest 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, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election that's going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don't get sick.
And so, sorry not sorry, Obama said he'd have to get a bit political, because John Lewis's legacy is under active attack:
John Lewis devoted his time on this Earth to fighting the very attacks on democracy and what's best in America that we're seeing circulate right now. He knew that every single one of us has a God-given power and that the faith of this democracy depends on how we use it. That democracy isn't automatic. It has to be nurtured. It has to be tended to. We have to work at it. It's hard.
The voting restrictions that followed the 2013 Supreme Court decision gutting the Voting Rights Act, Obama noted, had frequently been passed in states "where there's a lot of minority turnout and population growth. That's not necessarily a mystery or an accident. It was an attack on what John fought for." So to really honor Lewis, Obama said, we need to restore the VRA. And it would be nice if we named it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
But Lewis wouldn't be satisfied if all we did was to "get back to where we already were."
Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better by making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who've earned their second chance. By adding polling places and expanding early voting and making Election Day a national holiday, so if you are somebody who's working in a factory or you're a single mom, who's got to go to her job and doesn't get time off, you can still cast your ballot. By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington DC and in Puerto Rico. They're Americans. By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering, so that all voters have the power to choose their politicians, not the other way around.
Much of that — apart from the DC and Puerto Rico statehood — is already in the voting law House Democrats passed last year, the very first bill taken up after Democrats retook the House. And then Obama, who never came close to anything like this when he was president, said that if the only way to get that ambitious expansion of voting protections passed is to do away with the filibuster in the Senate, "another Jim Crow relic," then fine, let's do that.
We're pretty sure Joe Biden heard that.
Obama closed by noting that some of the best protectors of John Lewis's legacy have been marching in the streets in 2020. One more blockquote, sorry not sorry, OK?
By the thousands, faceless, anonymous young people, Black and white, have taken our nation "back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence." Dr. King said that in the 1960s. And it came true again this summer. We see it outside our windows in big cities and rural towns. In men and women; young and old; straight Americans and LGBTQ Americans; Blacks, who long for equal treatment, and whites, who can no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of their fellow Americans. We see it in everybody doing the hard work of overcoming complacency, of overcoming our own fears and our own prejudices, our own hatreds. You see it in people trying to be better, truer versions of ourselves.
Democracy is a lot of work. But Democracy works because we're willing to embrace its responsibilities "with joy and perseverance and discovering that, in our beloved community, we do not walk alone."
And that's the real meaning of John Lewis, Charlie Brown. Shut up Charlie Brown, I'm not crying, you are.
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