July 30, 2020
In what was perhaps his most overtly political appearance in years, former President Barack Obama delivered a thundering eulogy for the civil rights icon and late Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). Obama called on America to carry forth Lewis’s commitment to civil rights with a litany of progressive causes, including expanding access to voting, making Election Day a national holiday, and — in one of the most surprising moments of his speech — calling the Senate filibuster a “relic” of the Jim Crow era that should be abolished if it stands in the way of progress.
Hailing Lewis as “perhaps [Martin Luther King Jr.’s] finest disciple, Obama issued a scathing attack on President Trump without naming him, saying that “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. It’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don’t get sick.”
Obama’s broadside against Trump comes just hours after the president tweeted that perhaps Election Day should be delayed during the coronavirus pandemic — a power he explicitly does not have as president. He also criticized the White House’s ur-fascist deployment of federal troops to cities like Portland, where unidentified officers are in the early stages of withdrawing after spending weeks assaulting protesters.
“Today we witness with our own eyes, police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans,” Obama said. “George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”
Over nearly 40 minutes, Obama hailed Lewis as a leader and role model, saying at one point that Lewis had been a “mentor to young people — including me, at the time.”
Then, in what is sure to be the most talked about moment from Lewis’s funeral, Obama used Lewis’s activism as a model for a series of specific policy recommendations that would further Lewis’s fight for expanded voting and civil rights:
We should keep marching. To make it even better. By making sure every American is automatically registered to vote, including former inmates who’ve 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’s 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. 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.
Last month the House voted in favor of statehood for Washington, D.C., while earlier this month, The New York Times reported that Trump had secretly mulled selling Puerto Rico following the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Currently, neither D.C. nor Puerto Rico enjoy full representation in Congress.
To enact his list of policy suggestions, Obama went further than even his former vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has gone, saying that if the Senate filibuster is what stands in the way of expanding voting rights, then it should be eliminated. To date, Biden has only signaled a willingness to consider eliminating the legislative tool, which essentially requires 60 votes to pass bills through the upper chamber, but has not fully endorsed its elimination altogether.
It’s worth noting that Obama’s speech — rousing as it was — comes after his eight years in office, during which he was in a position to push for but did not accomplish any of the goals he listed Thursday.
Still, by giving his public, impassioned eulogy during the end stage of the 2020 election, Obama has likely pushed the Overton window enough to the left that ignoring the pressing issue of voting rights during the next few months will be impossible for either candidate. Biden now has an opportunity to seriously take up the mantle of expanded voting access, especially as Trump continues to raise the false specter of voter fraud.
You can watch Obama’s entire eulogy below.