The civil rights leader is being laid to rest in Atlanta, the city he represented in Congress for more than three decades.
John Lewis’s “enormous contributions will continue to be an inspiration for generations to come,” former President Jimmy Carter wrote in a letter that was read at the funeral.
The funeral of Representative John Lewis, a giant of Congress and the civil rights era, drew three former American presidents and hundreds of mourners to Ebenezer Baptist Church, the sanctuary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on a sweltering day in his longtime adopted hometown Atlanta.
Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton shared personal memories of working alongside Mr. Lewis in Washington and the lessons he taught them and the nation.
“We live in a better and nobler country today,” Mr. Bush said, “because of John Lewis — and his abiding faith in the power of God, in the power of democracy, and in the power of love to lift us all to a higher ground.”
“In the America John Lewis fought for, and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action,” he said. “We the people, including congressmen and presidents, can have differing views on how to perfect our union while sharing the conviction that our nation however flawed is at heart a good and noble one.”
“John Lewis was a walking rebuke to people who thought, ‘Well we ain’t there yet, we’ve been working a long time, isn’t it time to bag it?’ He kept moving. He hoped for, and imagined, and lived and worked and moved for his beloved community.”
“He got into a lot of good trouble along the way, but let’s not forget he also developed an absolutely uncanny ability to heal troubled waters,” Mr. Clinton said. “When he could have been angry and determined to cancel his adversaries, he tried to get converts instead. He thought the open hand was better than the clenched fist.”
“I think it’s important that all of us who loved him remember that he was, after all, a human being,” he said. “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. It made him more interesting, and it made him in my mind even greater.”
Others in the crowd included Senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey; the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who also gave remarks; and Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms.
In his opening remarks, the Rev. Raphael Warnock called on those present to consider Mr. Lewis’s legacy and commit to continuing his fight for democracy and justice.
“We are summoned here because we are 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,” said Mr. Warnock, who is currently running for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
“At a moment when there is so much political cynicism and narcissism that masquerades as patriotism, here lies a true American patriot who risked his life and lived for the hope and the promise of democracy.”
Mr. Lewis was called to the ministry as a teenager, Mr. Warnock said, and would preach to his family’s chickens. But as he grew up, he was called to other causes.
“As his life took shape, instead of preaching sermons, he became one. He became a living, walking sermon about truth-telling and justice-making in the Earth. He loved America until America learned how to love him back.”
Mr. Lewis’s homegoing at Ebenezer evokes decades of civil rights history. The bodies of Dr. King, a mentor and ally of Mr. Lewis, and Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, lie side-by-side over a reflecting pool across Auburn Avenue, a fabled street of Black commerce and culture known as “Sweet Auburn” that is also home to the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park.
Mr. Lewis was a member of the church, which last month hosted the funeral for Rayshard Brooks, a Black man fatally shot by a white police officer at an Atlanta fast-food restaurant.
They came carrying photographs of John Lewis as a fiery young activist and of John Lewis as an elder statesman. They waved American flags and wore T-shirts emblazoned with Mr. Lewis’s motto of “good trouble.”
A crowd filled a plaza outside of Ebenezer Baptist Church, known as “America’s Freedom Church,” on Thursday outside Mr. Lewis’ funeral.
Pam Hooks, a literacy coach in alternative schools, flew in with her cousin from Brevard County, Fla. “History!” she said.
“There’s always so much negativity surrounding African Americans,” said Ms. Hooks, who is Black. “We came to be in the midst of positivity and a moment that will live in the minds of Americans for years and years.”
As a teacher, she said, by attending in the flesh, she could help better convey Mr. Lewis’s legacy to her students, a legacy she described as “not giving up, no matter what.”
She treasures moments of celebrating Black history. She flew to Washington for President Obama’s first inauguration and to Detroit to attend a viewing of Aretha Franklin. “History,” she said.
Over the last few days, the body of John Lewis has traveled the country, from his native Alabama to the halls of Washington, D.C., to a public viewing Wednesday in Atlanta, his longtime adopted hometown, where scores of mourners lined up on a sweltering afternoon to bid him goodbye.
A motorcade on Wednesday led Mr. Lewis on one final tour of Atlanta, the city he represented in Congress for more than three decades and a place he helped establish as the spiritual home of a nonviolent movement to protest racism.
But on this ultimate journey, the hearse carrying the body of the congressman and civil rights leader traversed a city that in recent weeks has been racked by turmoil. It drove down streets where scores of demonstrators have marched this summer to protest police violence, including the fatal shooting of Mr. Brooks.
Mr. Lewis’s death on July 17 came amid a moment of unrest across America, with the nation again wrestling with its troubled racial history. And in the days since, at memorial events in Alabama and Washington, one person after the next has invoked Mr. Lewis’s credo of getting into “good trouble.” As a young man — and for the rest of his life — he defined it as a moral call to rebel through nonviolent means against injustices, even if the consequences were perilous.
The conversations about Mr. Lewis’s legacy, with some of his colleagues calling him the “conscience of Congress,” have pushed many activists and others to consider how his message of nonviolent resistance has endured and evolved for a new generation carrying on the fight.
“It’s easy to go violence on violence,” David Parker, an Army veteran who works for a courier company, said on Wednesday as he stood in a long line at the Statehouse to bid Mr. Lewis farewell. “The hard part is peace.”
“You go the other way,” Mr. Parker, 54, said, “you’re going to blow up the country.”
Outside the gold-domed Georgia Capitol, a diverse crowd that had come to pay their respects snaked around the building and seemed to constantly replenish itself. The crowd was young and old, in hijabs and ball caps, in formal dress and T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan of a new civil rights protest movement that Mr. Lewis had wholeheartedly endorsed.
Cedric Williams, 56, a tech worker, spoke of growing up Black in Memphis, and of being scarred, as a young man, by the 1968 assassination of Dr. King in his hometown.
Mr. Lewis’s consistent preaching of a shared humanity that transcends racial barriers spoke to him, as did his insistence that people, and the nation, were capable of change, just as Mr. Williams himself had changed.
“We’re still talking about those same issues,” Mr. Williams said, adding that he had been heartened by Mr. Lewis’s embrace of the Black Lives Matter effort as the latest chapter in a movement he had helped steer. “We are standing on the shoulders of greatness.”
Mr. Lewis wrote an essay shortly before his death for The New York Times to publish on the day of his funeral. Here is an excerpt.
While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Millions of people motivated simply by human compassion laid down the burdens of division. Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity.
That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.
Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor. He was 14 when he was killed, and I was only 15 years old at the time. I will never ever forget the moment when it became so clear that he could easily have been me.
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. 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.
[Read more about this essay and Mr. Lewis’s legacy from The Times’s editorial page editor, Kathleen Kingsbury.]
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