The late congressman John Lewis famously encouraged Americans to stir up “good trouble,” and former President Barack Obama did just that in his eulogy for the late civil rights pioneer on Thursday.
Obama earned multiple standing ovations during a speech littered with political barbs aimed at the Trump administration’s crackdown on Black Lives Matter protesters and stymied efforts to address voter suppression.
Recounting Lewis’ relentless activism, Obama said the country “hasn’t yet reached that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character.”
“Bull Connor may be gone but today we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans,” he said. “George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”
Obama said Lewis “spilled blood” for the Voting Rights Act, which was now under threat. He called for filibusters—“another Jim Crow relic”—to be scrapped so voting rights legislation can be passed. He called for Election Day to be a national holiday, for former inmates to be given voting rights, and for partisan gerrymandering to be done away with.
“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,” he said.
Speaking directly to the elected representatives in Ebenezer Baptist Church, Obama continued, “You want to honor John? Let’s honor John by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for.”
Perhaps foreseeing criticism that he made the eulogy political, Obama said, “I know this is a celebration of John’s life, there are some who might say we shouldn’t dwell on such things but... John Lewis devoted his time on this earth fighting the very attacks on democracy... that we’re seeing circulate right now.”
In response to Obama’s call for the end of the filibuster, Andrew Bates, director of rapid response for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, told The Daily Beast, “Congressional Republicans should turn their praise of Rep. Lewis into action and pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act today by voice vote. No filibuster, no delay.”
Lewis died on July 17, aged 80, from cancer. Declared a living saint by Time magazine, he spent his life campaigning for racial equality and voting rights after being savagely beaten in a civil rights protest while crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge at Selma, Alabama, on a march to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965.
Every living president except Donald Trump played a role in Thursday’s memorial, one of several events honoring Lewis’ life. George W. Bush and Bill Clinton gave a speech while Jimmy Carter sent a letter that was read aloud.