Obama honors 'mentor to young people' John Lewis with rousing eulogy

Former President Barack Obama said he was there because he owed a debt to the late congressman and his "forceful vision of freedom."

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
SUBSCRIBE
/ Source: TODAY
By Alexander Kacala

Former President Barack Obama gave a rousing eulogy for John Lewis at his funeral ceremony on Thursday, calling the civil rights icon "a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America" that lies in the nation's future.

Lewis, who died July 17 following a monthslong battle with pancreatic cancer, was honored at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the district he represented in the House of Representatives for 33 years. He was 80 years old.

"A mentor to young people, including me at the time, until his final day on this Earth," Obama, the country's first Black president, said of the congressman. "He not only embraced that responsibility but he made it his life's work, which isn't bad for a boy from Troy."

"He, as much as anyone in our history, brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals," Obama said.

"John never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country can do," he said. "I mentioned in the statement the day John passed, the thing about John was just how gentle and humble he was. And despite this storied, remarkable career, he treated everyone with kindness and respect because it was innate to him. This idea that any of us can do what he did, if we’re willing to persevere."

The former president addressed the issue that defined Lewis' legacy, calling on Congress to act on voting rights. "Let's honor him by revitalizing the law he was willing to die for," Obama said to a standing ovation, adding, "Naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that is a fine tribute, but John wouldn't want us to stop there. ... Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better," listing new provisions like automatic registration and making Election Day a national holiday.

Obama also called out the current administration, though not by name, and its attempts to discourage mail-in voting amid the coronavirus pandemic, saying he mentioned the issue of voting rights because Lewis "devoted his time on this Earth fighting the very attacks on democracy ... we're seeing circulate right now."

The private funeral began at 11 a.m. at the church that was once led by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush also honored the civil rights icon with speeches.

Bush remembered Lewis as a man who "always looked outward, not inward."

"He always thought of others," Bush said. "He always believed in preaching the gospel, in word and in deed, insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope."