Former President Barack Obama delivered a passionate eulogy at the memorial service for the late Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia congressman and civil rights icon who died earlier this month, that urged vigilance in the face of growing “dark currents” that threaten the progress of the nation’s democracy.
In his most politically-pointed address since leaving office, Obama waxed eloquent on Lewis’ legacy and subtly entered the election year fray — touting voting rights reform, the First Amendment and racial justice.
“We have to be vigilant against the darker currents of this country’s history,”
Obama said, noting that Lewis was aware of the fragility of human progress. “There are whirlpools of violence and hatred and despair that can always rise again,” he added.
Obama seized on Lewis’ lifelong mission as a voting rights champion to press the importance of voting reform in the U.S. as tensions swell over the upcoming November presidential election amid the coronavirus pandemic. The former President hit on several reform policy points, suggesting that early-voting should be “expanded” and embracing the effort to nix the Senate filibuster.
This comes as a sharp rebuke of President Donald Trump, who for months has railed against mail-in voting, baselessly claiming that mail-in ballots will lead to widespread election fraud. Both blue and red states across the nation have expanded vote-by-mail initiatives as a safe early voting alternative to voting in-person on Election Day during a pandemic.
President Trump’s assault on mail-in voting came to a crescendo early Thursday when he floated the idea of delaying the election, bolstering his unproven claims of widespread voter fraud.
The timing of Trump’s unconstitutional suggestion was juxtaposed by the publication of a post-mortem essay that Lewis had sent to The New York Times to be published on the day of his funeral. In that essay, which ran on Thursday, Lewis emphasized the importance of voting, calling it “the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society,” and adding that the right to vote must be exercised because it is not guaranteed.
“You can lose it,” Lewis warned.
Obama struck a similar tone in his Thursday remarks in a sweeping call to action.
“If politicians want to honor John,” he said that they should not stop at issuing statements to remember him. “Let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for,” the former President said, adding that voting rights should be expanded to include those who have been systematically excluded from exercising their right to vote, including ex-felons.
Obama was the third of three former presidents to speak at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, the sanctuary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
George W. Bush remembered Lewis as an “American saint” who championed love and hope. Obama, who followed speeches from Bush and Bill Clinton, resolutely said that Lewis carried America closer to its highest ideals, and will be remembered as a “founding father of that fuller, better, fairer America.”
It was a rare political display for Obama, who has remained relatively hedged since Trump took office. The speech memorialized Lewis as a person, but also pushed to advance Lewis’ legacy. Obama took aim at the show of force that Trump has adopted as a campaign tactic and criticized Trump’s deployment of federal law enforcement to American cities to “use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”
Obama also argued that voting was a challenge to abuses of political power.
“We may no longer have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar to cast a ballot but even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting,” Obama said.