In his stirring eulogy at the funeral service for Congressmember John Lewis, President Barack Obama said expanded voting rights would be the greatest way to honor the civil rights icon’s legacy. In a speech that condemned the status of American democracy without ever naming the sitting president, Obama called for election day to be declared a national holiday, full Congressional representation for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, and the end of the filibuster, which he called a “Jim Crow relic.” “You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law he was willing to die for,” Obama said in reference to the Voting Rights Act. We feature an extended excerpt from Obama’s remarks at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, the Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Family members and lawmakers and three former U.S. presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama—gathered in Atlanta, Georgia, Thursday at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the spiritual home of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to honor the life of civil rights legend, Congressmember John Lewis. He was eulogized by former President Barack Obama who spoke hours after President Trump tweeting he’s floating the idea of delaying the election.
BARACK OBAMA: John always saw the best in us, and he never gave up, and never stopped speaking out because he saw the best in us. He believed in us, even when we didn’t believe in ourselves. And as a congressman he didn’t rest. He kept getting himself arrested. As an old man, he didn’t sit out any fight. Sat in all night long on the floor of the United States Capitol. I know his staff was stressed.
But the testing of his faith produced perseverance. He knew that the march is not over, that the race is not yet won, that we have not yet reached that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character. He knew from his own life that progress is fragile, that we have to be vigilant against the darker currents of this country’s history. Of our own history, where there are whirlpools of violence and hatred and despair that can always rise again.
Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness with our own eyes 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. 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 darnedest to discourage people from voting by closing polling locations and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the Postal Service in the run-up to an election, that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick!
Now, I know this is a celebration of John’s life. There are some who might say we shouldn’t dwell on such things. But that’s why I’m talking about them. John Lewis devoted his time on this Earth fighting the very attacks on democracy, and what’s best in America, that we are seeing circulate right now. He knew that every single one of us has a God-given power and that the fate of this democracy depends on how we use it. That democracy isn’t automatic. It has to be nurtured; it has to be tended to. We have to work at it. It’s hard. And so he knew that it depends on whether we summon a measure, just a measure of John’s moral courage, to question what’s right and what’s wrong, and call things as they are.
He said that as long as he had a breath in his body, he would do everything he could to preserve this democracy. And as long as we have breath in our bodies, we have to continue his cause. If we want our children to grow up in a democracy, not just with elections but a true democracy, a representative democracy, in a big-hearted, tolerant, vibrant, inclusive America of perpetual self-creation, then we’re going to have to be more like John. We don’t have to do all the things he had to do, because he did them for us. But, we gotta do somethin’.
As the Lord instructed Paul, “Do not be afraid. Go on speakin’. Do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” Just everybody’s gotta come out and vote! We got all those people in the city, but they can’t do nothin’. Like John, we’ve gotta keep gettin’ into that good trouble. He knew that nonviolent protests is patriotic, a way to raise public awareness and put a spotlight on injustice and make the powers that be uncomfortable.
Like John, we don’t have to choose between protest and politics. It’s not an either/or situation. It’s a both/and situation. We have to engage in protest where that’s effective, but we also have to translate our passion and our causes into laws, institutional practices. That’s why John ran for Congress 34 years ago. Like John, we’ve got to fight even harder for the most powerful tool that we have, which is the right to vote.
The Voting Rights Act is one of the crowning achievements of our democracy. It’s why John crossed that bridge. It’s why he spilled his blood. And by the way, it was the result of Democratic and Republican efforts. President Bush, who spoke here earlier, and his father, signed its renewal when they were in office. President Clinton didn’t have to, because it was the law when he arrived. So instead he made a law to make it easier for people to register to vote.
But once the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act, some state legislators unleashed a flood of laws designed specifically to make voting harder, especially by the way, state legislators where there is a lot of minority turnout and population growth. That is not necessarily a mystery or an accident. It was an attack on what John fought for. It was an attack on our democratic freedoms. And we should treat it as such. If politicians wants to honor John—and I am so grateful for the legacy and work of all the congressional leaders who are here—but there is a better way than a statement calling him a hero. You want to honor John? Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for.
And, by the way, naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that is a fine tribute. But, John wouldn’t want us to stop there, just trying to get back to where we already were. Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better, 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 are a single mom who has 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, D.C. and in Puerto Rico. They’re Americans. By ending some of the partisan gerrymandering, so that all voters have the power to choose their politicians, not the other way around. And, if all of 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.
Now, even if we do all this, even if every bogus voter suppression law is struck off the books today, we’ve got to be honest with ourselves that too many of us choose not to exercise the franchise. Too many of our citizens believe their vote won’t make a difference, or they buy into the cynicism that, by the way, is the central strategy of voter suppression, to make you discouraged, to stop believing in your own power. So, we are also going to have to remember what John said. If you don’t do everything you can do to change things, then they will remain the same. You only pass this way once; you have to give it all you have.
As long as young people are protesting in the streets, hoping real change takes hold, I am hopeful, but we can’t casually abandon them at the ballot box. Not when few elections have been as urgent on so many levels as this one. We can’t treat voting as an errand to run if we have some time. We have to treat it as the most important action we can take, on behalf of democracy. And like John, we have to give it all we have.
I was proud that John Lewis was a friend of mine. I met him when I was in law school. He came to speak. I went up and I said, “Mr. Lewis, you are one of my heroes. What inspired me more than anything as a young man was to see what you and Reverend Lawson, Bob Moses and Diane Nash and others did.” And he got that kind of “Aw shucks. Thank you very much.” The next time I saw him, I had been elected to the United States Senate. And I told him, “John, I am here because of you.” And on Inauguration Day in 2008, 2009, he was one of the first people I greeted and hugged on that stand. And I told him, “This is your day too.”
He was a good and kind and gentle man, and he believed in us, even when we don’t believe in ourselves. And, it’s fitting that the last time John and I shared a public forum was on Zoom, and I am pretty sure neither he nor I set up the Zoom call, because we didn’t know how to work it. It was a virtual town hall with a gathering of young activists who had been helping to lead this summer’s demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Afterwards, I spoke to John privately, and he could not have been prouder to see this new generation of activists standing up for freedom and equality. A new generation that was intent on voting and protecting the right to vote, and in some cases, a new generation running for political office. I told him, “All those young people, John, of every race and every religion, from every background and gender and and sexual orientation, John, those are your children. They learned from your example. Even if they didn’t always know it.”
They had understood through him what American citizenship requires, even if they had only heard about his courage through the history books. By the thousands, faceless, anonymous, relentless young people, black and white, have taken our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep of the founding fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Dr. King said that in the 1960s and it came true again this summer.
And, we see it outside our windows in big cities, and rural towns, in men and women, young and old, straight Americans and LGBTQ Americans, blacks who long for equal treatment and whites who can no longer accept freedom for themselves while witnessing the subjugation of their fellow Americans. We see it in everybody doing the hard work of overcoming complacency, of overcoming our own fears and our own prejudices, our own hatreds. You see it in people trying to be better, truer versions of ourselves.
And that’s what John Lewis teaches us. That’s where real courage comes from, not from turning on each other, but from turning towards one another. Not by sowing hatred and division, but by spreading love and truth. Not by avoiding our responsibilities to create a better America and a better world, but by embracing those responsibilities with joy and perseverance, and discovering that in our beloved community, we do not walk alone.
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. God bless you all. God bless America. God bless this gentle soul who pulled it closer to its promise. Thank you very much.
AMY GOODMAN: President Barack Obama eulogizing Congressman John Lewis at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Obama then stepped down from the pulpit and donned his face mask as he made his way out.
John Lewis’ final public appearance was at Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, D.C., a day before he entered the hospital. Lewis died of pancreatic cancer. In a piece he asked The New York Times to publish on the morning of his funeral, John Lewis wrote “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. 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,” John Lewis wrote.
To see our interviews with John Lewis, visit Democracynow.org. That does it for our show. John Robert Lewis, rest in power. I am Amy Goodman. Stay safe. Wear a mask.