Opinion: John Lewis set the theme for his own funeral. Donald Trump showed why it was necessary

7/30/20 - Atlanta, GA - Former President Barack Obama, 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

The marathon, three-hour service in the sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church on Thursday was a celebration of John Lewis and the democracy for which he lived and, several times, nearly died.

A fragile former U.S. president sent his condolences, but three others personally took the pulpit and urged mourners to press on with the congressman’s work. A fifth president, the current one, demonstrated why such vigilance was necessary.

Donald Trump wasn't in the church on Auburn Avenue. His name wasn't even spoken during the invitation-only event. But it is safe to say that he was in the heads of nearly all of those who came to bid Lewis goodbye.

Two hours before the service began, the leader of the free world announced via Twitter that voting by mail — necessary during a pandemic — is a fraud, and suggested this: “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”

No doubt, the president was attempting to distract from the morning’s economic statistics, which showed that the United States had just dragged itself through the worst economic quarter since the end of World War II.

Still, making light of the right to vote doesn't go down well in an African American church about to bury a man who time and time again put his life on the line to give Black Southerners access to the ballot box.

I will not say that any Baptist church would put anything before the Holy Trinity, but at Ebenezer in particular, the right to vote runs a close fourth.

Perhaps John Lewis anticipated Trump’s mischief. Not long after Trump launched his Twitter bombs, newspapers across the country, including this one, began publishing a final essay that Lewis had penned — and embargoed until the day of his funeral.

“Voting and participating in the democratic process are key,” Lewis wrote. “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.”

It is a thoughtful man who sets the theme for his own funeral.

“Let’s sing the song of our democracy together,” the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the Ebenezer pastor who himself is a candidate for the U.S. Senate, said at the beginning of the proceedings.

Warnock introduced George W. Bush as the man “who was the president the last time we authorized the Voting Rights Act.” (His father, George H.W. Bush, did likewise.)

Like many others, Bush spoke of accompanying Lewis on a walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, marking the anniversary of that Bloody Sunday.

“John and I had our disagreements of course,” Bush said — not elaborating on the fact that the Iraq War was one of them. “But in the America that John Lewis fought for, in the America that I believe, differences of opinion are inevitable elements –— and evidence of democracy in action.”

Former President Bill Clinton dove into the weedy history of the civil rights movement, telling the story of Lewis’ ouster as head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1966. “It must have been painful to lose, but he showed as a young man that there are some things that you cannot do to hang onto a position —because if you do those [things], you won’t be who you are anymore,” Clinton said.

It was a curious observation that may or may not have been intended for a White House resident who has hinted that he might stay on if he doesn’t consider a Nov. 3 defeat to be legitimate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, voice cracking, emphasized her personal relationship with Lewis, but pointed to her colleague’s last written words. Xernona Clayton, the civil rights leader and Black television pioneer, told of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering she engaged in to bring together Lewis and his wife Lillian, who died in 2012.

Yet even Clayton closed with this: “To really give meaning to the John we loved, vote.”

She was followed by former Atlanta mayor Bill Campbell, who described his final meeting with the congressional veteran. “In a solemn moment, he pulled me closer and whispered, ‘Everyone has to vote in November. It is the most important election ever.’”

Former President Barack Obama, of course, had something like the last word. He offered that Lewis may have been Martin Luther King Jr.‘s “finest disciple.”

Lewis knew that the contest isn’t over, Obama said. “He knew from his own life that progress was fragile, that we had to be vigilant against the darker currents of this country’s history. Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness 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,” the former president said.

Obama called for a revitalized Voting Rights Act, automatic voter registration, and making Election Day a national holiday — all to make it easier to cast a ballot.

“If all of this takes eliminating the [Senate] filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” said Obama, who served briefly in the Senate.

Obama’s endorsement of doing away with the filibuster, a tool that gives a Senate minority much control over the chamber’s agenda, was probably the most significant bit of news to come out of the three-hour service -- a sign of “good trouble” to come.

John Lewis would have been pleased to hear that. And perhaps he did.

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