Former President Barack Obama was delivering the eulogy for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Thursday afternoon, capping off a day of heartfelt tributes to honor the legacy of the civil rights icon and the example he set for America to keep marching toward racial justice and a more perfect union.
The funeral for the late congressman took place at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. — the church where Martin Luther King, Jr., was baptized and served as a pastor and where his funeral was held after his 1968 assassination.
Obama began calling Lewis a “man of pure joy.”
Three former American presidents gave tributes at Lewis’ funeral Thursday — George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Obama, the first Black president in American history. About 50 of Lewis’ colleagues from the House attended the Atlanta service as well as Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J.
Bush, the first former president to speak, told a story of a young Lewis raising chickens in Troy, Ala. and how he cared so much for the flock that he baptized them, married them and preached to them. When his parents wanted to eat one for dinner, Lewis refused. “Going hungry was his first act of nonviolent protest,” Bush quipped.
Bush recalled working with Lewis to bring the National Museum of African American History to the National Mall in Washington and passing the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.
“John Lewis believed in the Lord. He believed in humanity and he believed in America,” said Bush, who was joined by former First Lady Laura Bush. “He’s been called an America saint.”
Clinton honored Lewis’ passion to keep moving toward progress no matter the adversity.
“It’s important that all of us who loved him remember that he was after all a human being –a man like all other humans, born with strengths that he made the most of when many don’t,” Clinton said. “Born with weaknesses, that he worked hard to beat down when many can’t. He was still a person. It made it more interesting and it made him, in my mind, even greater.”
Clinton marveled at Lewis’ final letter — published in The New York Times — that gave the country hope.
“It is so fitting on the day of his service. He leaves us our marching orders: Keep moving,” said Clinton.
Lewis, a longtime friend of the Clintons, initially endorsed Hillary Clinton, then a senator from New York, during the 2008 presidential election, but switched to Obama after the Georgia primary to reflect the will of his constituents.
“Something is happening in America,” Lewis said at the time in backing Obama, who would go on to win the primary and the presidency. “There is a movement, there is a spirit, there is an enthusiasm in the hearts and minds of the American people that I have not seen in a long time, since the candidacy of Robert Kennedy. The people are pressing for a new day in American politics, and I think they see Sen. Barack Obama as a symbol of that change.”
Obama honored Lewis in 2011 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. During the White House ceremony, Obama recalled Lewis returning to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. even after he was beaten within an inch of his life. Obama said for generations from now parents will evoke Lewis when they teach their children about courage.
Lewis was the son of Alabama sharecroppers and engaged in decades of activism before being elected to Congress in 1987 and living to see Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
“When we were organizing voter-registration drives, going on the Freedom Rides, sitting in, coming here to Washington for the first time, getting arrested, going to jail, being beaten, I never thought — I never dreamed — of the possibility that an African American would one day be elected president of the United States,” Lewis wrote shortly before Obama assumed office.
Lewis by 1963 had been arrested no fewer than 24 times while protesting, and by the end of his career had been arrested more than 40 times. He liked to talk about getting into “good trouble.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who often called Lewis the “conscience of the Congres,” shared one example of Lewis making mischief in Congress by leading a sit-in on the House floor in 2016 to call for a vote on gun control in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub massacre.
She marveled at the double rainbow that appeared in Washington this week above Lewis’ casket during the public viewing as a sign from above.
“He was telling us ‘I’m home in heaven,”‘ Pelosi said. “…We always knew he worked on the side of the angels. And now he is with them. May he rest in peace.”
King Jr.’s daughter Bernice King led a prayer thanking God for the “non-violent warrior” and called for “good trouble” to continue until “Black bodies are no longer a threat in this world, and Black lives have equitable representation, power and influence in every arena.”
President Trump and former President Jimmy Carter, 95, were not in attendance. A letter from Carter, however, was read at the funeral.
Lewis, D-Ga., this week was lying in state at the U.S. Capitol for three days as part of a six-day celebration of his life planned by his family. The celebration included a processional over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where he was beaten in 1965 as he led a group marching from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala., protesting obstacles to Black peoples’ right to vote.
Lewis also was honored at the Alabama state Capitol and his casket was driven past the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where he was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington — the event where King, Jr., made his “I Have a Dream” speech.
When Lewis was 15, he heard King’s sermons on WRMA, a radio station in Montgomery, Ala., he recalled in an interview for the Southern Oral History Program.
King was “the person who, more than any other, continued to influence my life, who made me who I was,” Lewis wrote in his 1998 autobiography, “Walking with the Wind.”
After the service, Lewis’ body was to travel by motorcade to South-View Cemetery, which will be Lewis’ final resting place. According to its website, South-View Cemetery was founded after the end of the Civil War by former slaves and inters the bodies of more than 80,000 African Americans.
King, Jr., and Dr. Benjamin Mays, another high-profile civil rights leader, were both initially buried at South-View before being moved, the South-View website says. And Lt. Henry O. Flipper, the “Buffalo Soldier” who was the first Black man to graduate from West Point, was also at South-View for a time before his military honors were posthumously returned and he was moved to a military cemetery. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Martin Luther King Sr. — the father of the famed civil rights leader — is still buried at South-View.
Fox News’ Tyler Olson, Chad Pergram, Mike Emanuel, Morgan Phillips and Ronn Blitzer, as well as The Associated Press, contributed to this report.