WASHINGTON — Former President Barack Obama delivered an impassioned eulogy for the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis on Thursday and called on Congress to honor Lewis’ legacy by expanding the Voting Rights Act.
Speaking in Atlanta, the nation’s first Black president warned that the same forces that empowered and motivated some of the most infamous segregationists in American history are still at work today.
Lewis, said Obama, “knew that the march is not over. That the race is not yet won,” and “we have to be vigilant against the darker currents of this country’s history.”
“Bull Connor may be gone, but today, we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans,” said Obama, referring to the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis this spring.
“George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators,” he continued, referring to the Trump administration’s violent response to racial justice protests in the wake of Floyd’s death.
“We may no longer have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar in order 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 I.D. laws and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision,” said Obama. “Even undermining the postal service in the runup to an election that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick!”
There was little doubt to whom Obama was referring here. Earlier in the day, Trump continued his monthslong war on mail-in voting with a tweet claiming without evidence that widespread mail-in ballots would result in an “inaccurate and fraudulent” election, before suggesting that perhaps the election should be delayed.
Trump also recently appointed a political donor with no relevant experience to the position of U.S. Postmaster General. The appointee, Louis Dejoy, recently unveiled an operating plan that would slow down mail delivery, even as states across the country ramp up mail-in voting to help protect citizens amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In order to honor Lewis’ legacy, Obama called on elected officials to go further than merely renaming the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
“Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better,” said Obama, “by making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who have 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 is 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,” Obama continued.
“By guaranteeing that every American citizen has equal representation in our government, including the American citizens who live in Washington, D.C., and in Puerto Rico; they’re also Americans. By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering, so that all voters have the power to choose their politicians, and not the other way around,” said Obama.
“And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that’s what we should do,” he said.
Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also paid homage to Lewis, who died earlier this month at age 80.
“John Lewis always looked outward, not inward,” said Bush, a Republican who was the last president to renew the Voting Rights Act. “He always thought of others. 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.”
Clinton encouraged people to honor Lewis’ legacy by continuing to get into “good trouble,” a phrase Lewis often used to describe the consequences of fighting against oppression. Lewis, he said, “left us with marching orders” in the form of an op-ed Lewis wrote shortly before he died, which was published Thursday in The New York Times. “Salute, suit up, and march on,” said Clinton.
Trump, who had an acrimonious relationship with Lewis, did not attend the funeral. Nor did he pay tribute to Lewis while the late congressman rested in state in the Capitol this week. Trump did, however, order flags to be flown at half staff for a day in Lewis’ honor.