Pelosi fights back tears during tribute to LewisJuly 30, 2020
Three former presidents and the most powerful woman in Congress are saying their goodbyes to civil rights icon John Lewis at his funeral service at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Thursday.
Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi each delivered tributes to the late congressman, and former President Jimmy Carter sent his condolences in a letter that was read aloud during the service. Former President Barack Obama will deliver the official eulogy.
The speakers shared tales of Lewis’ civil rights journey and lifelong activism, told personal anecdotes of marching alongside him and remarked upon how he represented the best of America.
“Only the inconquerable spirit and the magnanimous soul of John Lewis could summon us together in this place at this time,” said the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the church’s senior pastor and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate in Georgia. “Only John Lewis could compel three living American presidents to come to this house of God, to celebrate his life, and we are grateful that all of them are here.”
Bush acknowledged his political differences with Lewis but framed them as an inevitable effect of democracy.
“We live in a better and nobler country today because of John Lewis,” Bush said. “The story that began in Troy isn’t ending here today, nor is the work. John Lewis lives forever in his father’s house, and he will live forever in the hearts of Americans who act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with their God. May the flights of angels see John Lewis to his rest and may God bless the country he loved.”
Lewis’ funeral is the penultimate event of the six-day celebration of his life, which took the Alabama native and Georgia congressman through Alabama, Georgia and Washington, D.C. Lewis, an American hero who was brutally beaten during the “Bloody Sunday” protest in Selma, Ala., in 1965, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge for the last time over the weekend, lay in repose in Selma and Troy, Ala., and lay in state at the Alabama state Capitol, U.S. Capitol and Georgia state Capitol.
“I must say, for a fellow who got his start speaking to chickens, John’s got a pretty finely organized and orchestrated and deeply deserved sendoff this last week,” joked Clinton, who was referencing past speakers’ stories about how a young Lewis preached to chickens. “His home-going has been something to behold.”
“I think it’s important that all of us who loved him remember that he was, after all, a human being, a man like all other humans born with strengths that he made the most of when many don’t, born with weaknesses that he worked hard to beat down when many can’t, but still a person,” Clinton said. “It made him more interesting, and it made him in my mind even greater.”
Lewis, 80, died July 17. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last December. Lewis represented the Atlanta area in Congress from 1987 until his death.
The service was closed to the public, but more than 200 masked people, many of whom were family, members of Congress and other elected officials, filed into the church. Dozens more gathered outside the church and watched the service on a screen.
The funeral brought some of the most powerful politicians in the country to deliver remarks and fill the pews. Attendees included House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Harris, Bottoms and Abrams are contenders to join former Vice President Joe Biden on the Democratic presidential ticket this fall.
Pelosi at times fought back tears as she recalled moments lawmakers shared with Lewis, the conscience of the Congress.
“Every time he stood up to speak, we knew that he was gonna take us to a higher place of our understanding and what our responsibilities were and what our opportunities were, and he insisted, no matter how — shall we say offended — someone might be, that he would insist on the truth,” she said.
Pelosi compared Lewis favorably to former President Abraham Lincoln and said there was a double rainbow in the sky on the last day his casket was inside the U.S. Capitol, though it hadn’t rained.
“He was telling us, I’m home in heaven,” Pelosi said. “We always knew he worked on the side of the angels, and now he is with them. May he rest in peace.”
Other speakers included the Rev. Bernice King, CEO of the King Center, who led a prayer, activist James Lawson, former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell and Lewis’ deputy chief of staff Jamila Thompson.
President Donald Trump is the only living president who had no role in the funeral, a distinction that didn’t go unnoticed as several speakers marveled at the number of presidents who were able to travel to Atlanta to celebrate Lewis’ life.
Trump had no events on his schedule for Thursday morning but is slated to tour the American Red Cross national headquarters in Washington, D.C. and participate in a roundtable on donating plasma in the afternoon. He spent his morning bashing mail-in voting on Twitter and questioning whether the presidential election should be postponed “until people can properly, securely and safely vote.”
The president didn’t mention Lewis in his tweets Thursday and declined to pay his respects when Lewis’ casket was brought to D.C. He did, however, tweet on July 18 that he was “[s]addended to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing” and sent his prayers, along with first lady Melania Trump, to Lewis’ family.
Though Trump was not in attendance at the funeral service, Warnock used his welcome remarks to contrast Lewis with the president, who was not mentioned by name.
“We’re summoned here because, in a moment when there are some in high office who are much better at division than vision, who cannot lead us so they seek to divide us, in a moment when there is so much political cynicism and narcissism that masquerades as patriotism,” he said to applause, “here lies a true American patriot who risked his life and limb for the hope and the promise of democracy.”
Lewis will be buried at South-View Cemetery in Atlanta.
In his own final words, Lewis told Americans who have protested systemic racism and police brutality across the country that they “inspired” him in his last days and filled him with hope for the future. He urged American citizens to get into “good trouble” and highlighted voting and participating in the democratic process as key to redeeming the soul of the nation.
“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe,” he wrote shortly before his death in an op-ed published earlier Thursday in The New York Times. “In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”