Barack Obama Remembers ‘Hero’ John Lewis With Eulogy: We Owe ‘Great Debt’ To The Civil Rights Icon

Barack Obama was met with a standing ovation after an extraordinary speech at Rep. John Lewis' funeral, saying the only way to have a 'true democracy' is to vote.

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A day of passionate speeches and unforgettable stories at Rep. John Lewis‘ funeral service ended with triumphant, heartbreaking words from his friend, former President Barack Obama. Obama joined two other former presidents, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, in honoring the memory and legacy of the Civil Rights icon, who fought tirelessly for justice until he died on July 17.

“He was an American whose faith was tested again and again to produce a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance” Obama began. “I’ve come here today because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom. Now, this country is a constant work in progress,” Obama continued. “We’re born with instructions to form a more perfect union. Explicit in those words is the idea that we’re imperfect.

“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… Until his final day on this Earth, he not only embraced that responsibility but he made it his life’s work,” Obama stated. The former president went through Lewis’ formidable history as a civil rights pioneer, from his days as one of the original Freedom Riders, to marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and leading the way on Bloody Sunday in Selma.

Obama marveled at the courage of Lewis and other Freedom Riders who risked their lives for justice when they were younger than his daughter, 22-year-old Malia Obama. “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 continued, saying that the best way to honor Lewis, and to ensure that if Americans want “our kids to grow up in a democracy, a true democracy [that’s] bighearted and tolerant,” then it’s time to vote. It’s what Lewis devoted his life to.

“There are those in power who are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting… even undermining the postal service in the run up to an election that’s gonna be dependent on mail-in ballots,” Obama said, an apparent reference to President Donald Trump‘s tweet earlier in the day, in which he proposed delaying the 2020 election because of “fraudulent” mail-in voting. “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,” Obama said to a standing ovation.

“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.”

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President Barack Obama presents Rep. John Lewis with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House, 2/15/11 (AP Images)

Lewis was Obama’s hero. The two met when Obama was still a student at Harvard Law, his political dreams just that. “Years later, when I was elected a US Senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders,” Obama said in a statement following Lewis’ death. “When I was elected President of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made.”

The congressman loved Obama just as much. At Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Lewis sweetly handed Obama his ticket to the event and asked the president-elect for an autograph. Obama’s message? “Because of you, John.” The last time the two shared a forum was during a virtual town hall with young activists, in the wake of George Floyd‘s death.

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President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama escort Rep. John Lewis and other civil rights pioneers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, 3/7/15 (AP Images)

“I told him that all those young people — of every race, from every background and gender and sexual orientation — they were his children,” Obama said at the time. “They had learned from his example, even if they didn’t know it. They had understood through him what American citizenship requires, even if they had heard of his courage only through history books.”

Lewis, called the “Conscience of Congress,” was a true legend. He was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington in 1963, and led the march across the bridge from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, bearing brutal beatings and a cracked skull from police. Lewis was arrested 45 times for his activism work, including in October 2013, during a Camino Americano rally on the National Mall in Washington, DC as he and others protested for the ratification of an immigration bill.

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President Barack Obama embraces Rep. John Lewis on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama, 3/7/15 (AP Images)

Five of his total arrests came while he was a sitting Congressman. Lewis continued to encourage all young people to “get in good trouble” like he did until his dying day. Lewis passed away at the age of 80 after a seven-month battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. May he rest in peace.

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