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Obama’s John Lewis Eulogy: “Let’s Honor Him by Revitalizing” the Voting Rights Act

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In 1965, John Lewis was brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers as he led a march advocating for the protection of Black Americans’ right to vote—an event that helped lead to the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In his gripping eulogy to Lewis at the late lawmaker’s memorial service Thursday, former President Barack Obama condemned the modern-era restrictions on voting rights that have undermined Lewis’ legacy.

“We may no longer have to guess the number of jelly beans in a jar to be able to cast a ballot,” Obama said, raising his voice over the applause that rang out from Ebenezer Baptist Church, “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.”

Obama applauded President George W. Bush for signing a reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act in 2006 and President Bill Clinton for signing a law making it easier for people to register to vote. “But once the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act,” he said, referring to conservative justices’ decision in 2013 to allow states with a history of discrimination to change voting laws without federal approval, “some state legislators unleashed a flood of laws designed specifically to make voting harder—especially, by the way, state legislators where there’s a lot minority turnout.”

Republicans in Congress have blocked legislation to restore the protections the high court invalidated. As my colleague Ari Berman wrote the day after Lewis’ death:

In December 2019, Lewis presided over the House as it passed legislation to restore and modernize the Voting Rights Act, requiring states with a long history of voting discrimination to once again get federal approval for any changes to voting procedures. In a primary season marred by voting problems, like six-hour lines in Lewis’ home state of Georgia, it’s been sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk for 225 days.

“I know this is a celebration of John’s life,” Obama said. “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 to fighting the very attacks on democracy and what’s best in America that we’re seeing circulate right now.”

Obama called for passing the renewed voting rights law, recently renamed the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that Republicans have been blocking. “You want to honor John?” he said, as the audience rose to their feet. “Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law he was willing to die for.”

And the former president went further, calling on lawmakers to eliminate the filibuster (“another Jim Crow relic”), enact automatic voter registration, enfranchise former inmates, make Election Day a national holiday, expand early voting, end gerrymandering, and grant congressional representation to Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. He also urged every eligible citizen to exercise their right to vote and praised the young protesters who have taken to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s killing—activism he sees as a crucial extension of Lewis’ legacy.

Read the transcript of Obama’s eulogy below:

James wrote to the believers, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.” It is a great honor to be back in Ebenezer Baptist Church in the pulpit of its greatest pastor, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to pay my respects to perhaps his finest disciple. An American whose faith was tested again and again, to produce a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance: John Robert Lewis.

To those who have spoken, to Presidents Bush and Clinton, Madame Speaker, Reverend Warnock, Reverend King, John’s family, friends, his beloved staff, Mayor Bottoms, I’ve come here today because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom.

You know, this country is a constant work in progress. We’re born with instructions: to form a more perfect union. Explicit in those words is the idea that we’re imperfect. That what gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last and carry it further than any might have thought possible. John Lewis, first of the Freedom Riders; head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; youngest speaker at the March on Washington; leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery; member of Congress, representing the people of this state and this district for 33 years; mentor to young people—including me at the time—until his final day on this Earth, he not only embraced that responsibility, but he made it his life’s work. Which isn’t bad for a boy from Troy.

John was born into modest means—that means he was poor. In the heart of the Jim Crow South to parents who picked somebody else’s cotton. Apparently he didn’t take to farm work. On days when he was supposed to help his brothers and sisters with their labor, he’d hide under the porch and make a break for the school bus when it showed up. His mother, Willie May Lewis, nurtured that curiosity in this shy, serious child. “Once you learn something,” she told her son, “once you get something inside your head, no one can take it away from you.” As a boy, John listened through the door after bedtime as his father’s friends complained about the Klan. One Sunday as a teenager, he heard Dr. King preach on the radio. As a college student in Tennessee, he signed........

© Mother Jones

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