Former President Barack Obama issued a sweeping call to action on voting rights in his eulogy for civil rights icon and longtime Georgia congressman John Lewis, calling for an end to the filibuster, automatic voter registration, allowing formerly incarcerated people to vote, expanding early voting and making Election Day a national holiday.
“If you want to honor John, let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for,” Obama said, calling out the hypocrisy of politicians who posted tributes to Lewis while dedicating their careers to enacting voting restrictions and trying to dismantle and gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
“And, by the way, naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, that is a fine tribute. But John wouldn’t want us to stop there, just trying to get back to where we already were. Once we pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, we should keep marching to make it even better.”
Obama’s eulogy was an implicit rebuke of President Donald Trump as well as Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the Supreme Court opinion that gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 and whose defining achievement on the bench has been the erosion of voting rights.
It was only fitting for the first Black president to take center stage at Thursday’s memorial service for Lewis. The civil rights titan died of cancer on July 17.
“I’ve come here today because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom,” Obama began.
The former president traced the entire arc of Lewis’ long and storied career, which began when Lewis was on the front lines of the civil rights movement as a college student.
“Sometimes we act as if this was inevitable. Imagine two people, Malia’s age, younger than my oldest daughter, on their own, to challenge an entire infrastructure of oppression,” Obama said. “John was only 20 years old, but he pushed all 20 of those years to the center of the table, betting everything, all of it, that his example could challenge centuries of convention and generations of brutal violence and countless daily indignities suffered by African Americans.”
He went on to describe Lewis’ long congressional career and his work until the very end of his life.
“As an old man, he didn’t sit out any fight,” Obama said. “He knew that the march is not over, that the race is not yet won.”
Throughout the eulogy, Obama drew parallels between Lewis’ life’s work and the current political moment, including the violent police response to the anti-racism and anti-police brutality protests around the country this summer — showing how the past is prologue and that history continues to repeat itself.
“He knew from his own life that progress is fragile, that we have to be vigilant against the darker currents of this country’s history, of our own history, where there are whirlpools of violence and hatred and despair that can always rise again,” Obama said.
He referred to former Alabama governor and notorious segregationist George Wallace. “Today, we witness with our own eyes, police officers kneeling on the necks of black Americans. George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”
“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 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 continued.
“I know this is a celebration of John’s life. There are some who might say we shouldn’t dwell on such things. But that’s why I’m talking about it,” Obama explained.
On Thursday morning, Trump, who was not present at the service and who Lewis warned was not a “legitimate president,” falsely suggested he could move the date of the November election because the COVID-19 pandemic could mean that more people vote by mail.
As he often does, Obama did not name Trump, but the current president loomed large as his predecessor warned of the importance of the November election and urged Americans not to take their right to vote for granted.
“Even if we do all this, even if every bogus voter suppression law is struck off the books today, we’ve got to be honest with ourselves, that too many of us choose not to exercise the franchise,” Obama said. “We can’t treat voting as an errand to run if we have some time. We have to treat it as the most important action we can take on behalf of democracy — and like John, we have to give it all we have.”
Obama also argued that while Lewis’ life was extraordinary, it also reflected the ways ordinary people can change the world. “America was built by John Lewises,” he said.
“The life of John Lewis was, in so many ways, exceptional. It vindicated the faith in our founding, redeemed that faith, that most American of ideas, the idea that any of us, ordinary people without rank or wealth or title or fame, can somehow point out the imperfections of this nation and come together and challenge the status quo, and decide that it is in our power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals,” Obama said.
“What a radical idea,” he added. “What a revolutionary notion, this idea that any of us ordinary people, a young kid from Troy, can stand up to the powers and principalities, and say: ‘No, this isn’t right, this isn’t true, this isn’t just. We can do better.’”
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