ATLANTA – Barack Obama called John Lewis “a man of pure joy and unbreakable perserverance” in joining George W. Bush and Bill Clinton in a rare gathering of former presidents to honor the civil rights giant at his funeral in the church where Dr. Martin Luther King once preached.
Clinton, speaking slowly in a soft voice, hailed the late congressman for his belief in peaceful demonstration and to the cause of civil rights even when it meant being beaten by police or state troopers during the civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s. He noted the devotion to what Lewis called “good trouble,” irritating the status quo in order to bring about change.
“He got in a lot of good trouble along the way, but let’s not forget he developed an absolute uncanny ability to heal troubled waters,” Clinton said. “He thought the open hand was better than the clenched fist.”
Bush called Lewis “an American saint, a believer willing to give up everything.”
He noted that he and Lewis had had political disagreements – Bush being a Republican and Lewis a Democrat – but that it was an inevitable result of democracy in action. He said he admired Lewis for his faith and pursuit of a better world.
“We live in a better and nobler country today because of John Lewis and his abiding faith in the power of God, the power of democracy and the power of love to lift us all to a higher ground,” Bush said.
America’s oldest living former president, Jimmy Carter, 95, sent a statement that was read at the service. President Donald Trump, who feuded politically with Lewis, didn’t attend.
Lewis passed away July 17 after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old.
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Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi talked of Lewis’ contributions in Congress, where his body lie in state at the U.S. Capitol before being flown to Atlanta.
“There was this double rainbow over the casket,” she said. “He was telling us, ‘I’m home in heaven, I’m home in heaven.’ We always knew he worked on the side of angels, and now he is with them.”
Bernice King, a minister, attorney and youngest child of King and Coretta Scott King, echoed the “good trouble” theme Lewis embraced in a prayer to start the service, urging the struggle for voting rights and over white supremacy “until this nation truly becomes a compassionate nation.” Lewis, she said, “joins the great cloud of freedom fighters.”
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“We will continue to get in good trouble as long as you grant us the breathe to do so,” she said.
Lewis was also honored by James Lawson, a fellow civil rights leader, as one who transcended politics to focus on greater truths. Lewis practiced ‘the politics of the Declaration of Independnce, the politics of the preamble of the Constitution.”
Outside Ebenezer Baptist Church, hundreds filled the sidewalks and front yard, many holding signs and wearing T-shirts with images of Lewis or his motto “Good Trouble.”
Some stood behind the orange police barricades near the entrance of the church hoping to catch a glimpse of dignitaries walking in.
The streets were lined with tents occupied by vendors selling Lewis paraphernalia and Black Lives Matter shirts.
Pamela Burrell said Lewis was likely one of the best civil rights leaders in history next to King.
“Today is a special day and it should be John Lewis Day everywhere in America today, especially Atlanta,” said Burrell, 57, of Atlanta. “And all that we gave to him this week, we actually owe him more than that.”
Isaac Ferguson Dillard and Joseph Earls, of Atlanta, led the crowd in a song they wrote to honor the late congressman’s “good trouble” philosophy. Mourners also sang gospel songs such as “We Shall Overcome.”
Dillard said Lewis inspired him to stand up for justice and motivate today’s youth to do the same.
“As John Lewis said, when you see something is wrong, say something, and when you see something is wrong, do something,” Dillard said. “So it’s about putting your words into action… and by doing that you’re getting into good trouble.”
When the funeral began, the crowd moved in front of the jumbotron displaying a livestream of the service. They clapped and shouted when leaders such as Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lace Bottoms and Clinton appeared on the screen.
Norris Kenney Allen, 78, was among the people seated in lawn chairs directly in front of the screen before the funeral started.
Allen said it was “extraordinary” that Obama, Clinton and Bush were all attending the funeral.
“It’s very rare that you find three of the presidents at a place at the same time,” said Allen, who marched with Lewis in Selma and was inspired by his non-violent protests. “It’s so important to be here.”
The service came as the New York Times published a posthumous op-ed Thursday morning penned by Lewis, a congressman representing the Atlanta area since 1986, repeating his call for Americans to get in “good trouble, necessary trouble,” in order to “redeem the soul” of their country.
The civil rights icon wrote the essay shortly before his death, requesting it be published on the day of his funeral. The service at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church caps six days of memorial events across five different cities.
There will be an interment for Lewis at South View Cemetery following the funeral.
Lewis served in the U.S. House of Representatives for Georgia’s 5th congressional district for 33 years. The district covers most of Atlanta and a few suburbs.
Prior to being elected to Congress, Lewis was an Atlanta city councilman.
Lewis was loved and respected throughout the Atlanta community for his unwavering fight for civil rights.
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He spent most of his life advocating for equality, particularly voting rights for Black people, including as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a young organizer for the March on Washington in 1963.
Mourners created a makeshift memorial of flowers, teddy bears, candles and posters expressing gratitude in front of the John Lewis mural in downtown Atlanta. The mural was dedicated in 2012.
Ebenezer Baptist Church’s Horizon Sanctuary is located at the site of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. Civil rights leader C.T. Vivian, who died the same day as Lewis, was carried through the site during a processional last week.