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John Lewis: A Founding Father of a better America

Three former presidents, thousands of admirers mourn 'Boy from Troy'

Three American presidents showed up Thursday to laud a man born 80 years ago in a three-room shotgun house to sharecroppers in rural Alabama.

A fourth president’s regards were read to attendees that included Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, members of Congress and civil rights icons who marched with Lewis and to those listening to the national broadcast from Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.

“What a gift John Lewis was,” said former President Barack Obama. “We were all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while. And show us the way. I am proud that John Lewis was a friend of mine. He was a good and kind and gentle man and he believed in us. Even when we don’t believe in ourselves.”

ExploreJohn Lewis: A Life Well Lived

Memories, funny stories, heroic tales, songs, scripture and prayers were shared, as at a funeral for any Christian. But many speakers’ words also carried the political tension of the times, references to recent events and the coming elections. Those tensions were reflected in Lewis’ own last words, a letter he left to be read the day of his funeral.

“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble,” the letter reads. ”Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”

“I just loved him,” said former President Bill Clinton, “I always will, and I am so grateful that he stayed true to form. He has gone up yonder and left us with marching orders.”

7/30/20 - Atlanta, GA -  Former President Bill Clinton addresses the service.  On the sixth day of the “Celebration of Life” for Rep. John Lewis, his funeral is  held at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, with burial to follow.   Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com
7/30/20 - Atlanta, GA - Former President Bill Clinton addresses the service. On the sixth day of the “Celebration of Life” for Rep. John Lewis, his funeral is held at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, with burial to follow. Alyssa Pointer / alyssa.pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

ExploreJohn Lewis: 1940-2020

In his eulogy, Obama carefully reconstructed Lewis’ life, from his days growing up in his hometown of Troy to the courage he showed during the civil rights movement to his dignity as a 33-year-member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“The life of John Lewis was in so many ways exceptional,” Obama said. “It vindicated the faith in our founding. It redeemed that faith. That most American of ideas — 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. And decide that it is in our nature to remake this country that we love.”

Obama said that on the battlefield of justice, Americans like Lewis, the Rev. Joseph Lowery and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, all of whom died this year and to whom he each gave a Presidential Medal of Freedom, helped liberate the country.

“America was built by people like that. He, as much as anyone in history, brought this country a little closer to our highest ideals,” Obama said. “And someday, when we do finish that long journey toward freedom, when we do form a more perfect union…whether it is a year 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.”

Former President Barack Obama, addresses the service during the funeral for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)
Former President Barack Obama, addresses the service during the funeral for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Obama veered into the times and a warning, bringing up images of racist Alabama Police Commissioner Bull Conner and former Gov. George Wallace, and he aligned their actions to what is going on today with police brutality and voter intimidation and suppression.

ExploreRead President Barack Obama's full eulogy

“We may no longer have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar to cast a ballot. But even as we sit here there are those in power who are doing their darndest 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,” Obama said. “Even undermining the postal service in the runup to an election that is going to be dependent on mail-in ballots.”

Hours before the funeral, President Trump floated the idea of delaying the Nov. 3 general election, questioning whether mail-in votes could be trusted.

“I know this is a celebration of John’s life,” Obama said. “There are some who might say we shouldn’t dwell on such things. But that’s why I’m talking about it. 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.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, who served on Atlanta’s City Council with Lewis decades ago and remained a close friend told the crowd: “In the last days of his life, when we both knew that death was imminent, I desperately wanted to tell John how much he meant to me and the country. But in a solemn moment, he pulled me closer and he whispered, ‘everyone has to vote in November. It is the most important election ever.’”

Former President George W. Bush spoke of Lewis’ famous compassion and forgiveness and referred to a time when Republicans like himself and Democrats like Lewis could share common ground.

“Listen, John and I had our disagreements of course,” he said.

Former President George W. Bush speaks during the funeral service for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Thursday, July 30, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)
Former President George W. Bush speaks during the funeral service for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Their conflict started when Lewis boycotted Bush’s 2001 inauguration after the contentious 2000 election. But they ended up working together on issues like voting rights laws and the building of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Bush also signed legislation extending for 25 years the Voting Rights Act, the historic 1965 law which opened polls to millions of black Americans by outlawing racist voting practices in the South.

“But in the America John Lewis fought for and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action,” said Bush, who got a standing ovation when he was introduced by the Rev. Raphael Warnock.

“We the people, including congressmen and presidents, can have different views on how to affect our union while sharing the conviction that our nation, however flawed, is a good and noble one. We live in a better and nobler country today because of John Lewis.”

A mourner wears a mask with a monogram of John Lewis' signature at the burial service for Rep. John Lewis at South-View Cemetery in Atlanta Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
A mourner wears a mask with a monogram of John Lewis' signature at the burial service for Rep. John Lewis at South-View Cemetery in Atlanta Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Flowers lie on the casket after the burial service for Rep. John Lewis at South-View Cemetery in Atlanta Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Flowers lie on the casket after the burial service for Rep. John Lewis at South-View Cemetery in Atlanta Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Other speakers, great and small, gave their remembrances of Lewis.

Tybre Faw, a 12-year-old who once traveled seven hours to see Lewis and was greeted by a hug, read Lewis’ favorite poem, “Invictus.”

Atlanta icon Xernona Clayton left the audience chuckling after telling how she finagled to set up Lewis with his late wife Lillian Miles, and how long it took the relationship to get off the ground because the shy and reserved “John was too slow.”

Because of the coronavirus, seating in the church was limited and hundreds watched from outside on a big screen.

As his casket was carried out, they sang “Good Trouble” and “We Shall Overcome.”

“He was so special to so many of us,” Chip Joyner said. “The movement for equality that we celebrate today, he started. I could not let the day go by without paying my last respects.”

Earlier, wearing Lewis or Black Lives Matter T-shirts and masks, mourners lined Auburn Avenue to have their voices heard. Other’s camped out beneath the John Lewis Mural Auburn Avenue, reminding others to vote.

Olu Burgess, a security consultant from the Augusta area, was taking photos at the nearby mural to send to relatives in Washington, D.C.

”He’s our hero. He’s our warrior and celebrating him is extremely important,” he said stressing that Lewis’ work not only benefited African Americans but all Americans.

After the funeral, Lewis was taken to South-View Cemetery, where was buried next to his late wife Lillian.

Flowers lie on the casket after the burial service for Rep. John Lewis at South-View Cemetery in Atlanta, Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Flowers lie on the casket after the burial service for Rep. John Lewis at South-View Cemetery in Atlanta, Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

At the gravesite, after Warnock performed a brief ceremony, a 21-gun salute and the folding of an American flag, Lewis family members placed white roses on his casket while white doves were released.

Her eyes red from crying, Jamila Thompson, Lewis’ congressional deputy chief of staff tried not to mourn Lewis, but celebrate him offering stories of how he worked every day to make everyone feel special and worthy.

“I think that is what I am going to miss the most, his laugh,” Thompson said, smiling. “Not the laugh you would see on television. But when he would laugh from his heart, his belly, his soul.”

Shelia Poole, J.D. Capelouto and Leon Stafford contributed to this report