The former president delivered a riveting speech about Lewis's life and legacy, highlighting how it was up to Americans to continue his efforts.
United States House Representative John Lewis died of cancer earlier this month, on July 17. A socially-distanced memorial for the iconic civil rights leader was held on Thursday, where former President Barack Obama delivered a powerful eulogy in his honor. There was, of course, no one better to speak of Lewis's incredible life and legacy than the country's first Black President. However, Obama's speech was rather political; he was perhaps capturing the opportunity to continue the Representative's legacy. Obama affirmed, "John never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country can do."
As the US Presidential elections loom closer, perhaps Obama recognized that such an opportunity could not be wasted. Though he has thus far chosen to remain on the political sidelines, appearing on rare occasions to support presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, his former Vice President, Lewis' memorial was charged with a sense of urgency. Nonetheless, Obama did pay respect to Lewis, who he called "a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance," by recognizing his contributions to the United States. He stated, "I’ve come here today because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom."
The former president continued, "The life of John Lewis was, in so many ways, exceptional. It vindicated the faith in our founding, redeemed that faith; that most American of ideas; that idea that any of us ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation, and come together, and challenge the status quo, and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals... America was built by John Lewises. He as much as anyone in our history brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals." He also highlighted the various events that shaped Lewis's life: becoming the first of the Freedom Riders, organizing the Nashville campaign in 1960, leading the march from Selma to Montgomery, and pushing for the Voting Rights Act to be signed into law, among so many other noteworthy accomplishments.
He also stressed that all citizens could be part of the America that Lewis helped form. "Despite [his] storied, remarkable career, [Lewis] 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 are willing to persevere," Obama stated. "He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, that in all of us there is a longing to do what’s right, that in all of us there is a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect." Perhaps his forward-looking vision showed him he would be criticized for politicizing the Representative's death, so Obama added, "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 it. 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."
Therefore, Obama urged Americans to honor Lewis in their own little ways. "Like John, we have got to keep getting into that good trouble," he urged. "He knew that nonviolent protest is patriotic: a way to raise public awareness, 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 is not an either-or situation, it is a both-and situation. We have to engage in protests where that is effective but we also have to translate our passion and our causes into laws and institutional practices... Like John, we have got to fight even harder for the most powerful tool we have, which is the right to vote." He concluded by encouraging everyone to "turn towards each other" instead of away from each other.
Obama affirmed, "That’s what John Lewis teaches us. That’s where real courage comes from. Not from turning on each other, but by 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."