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John Lewis honored as 'founding father' of a better America

Ernie Suggs, Tia Mitchell and Maya T. Prabhu, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in News & Features

ATLANTA -- Three American presidents showed up Thursday to laud a man born 80 years ago in a three-room shotgun house to sharecroppers in rural Alabama.

A fourth president's regards were read to attendees that included Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, members of Congress and civil rights icons who marched with Lewis and to those listening to the national broadcast from Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church.

"What a gift John Lewis was," said former President Barack Obama. "We were all so lucky to have had him walk with us for a while. And show us the way. I am proud that John Lewis was a friend of mine. He was a good and kind and gentle man and he believed in us. Even when we don't believe in ourselves."

Memories, funny stories, heroic tales, songs, scripture and prayers were shared, as at a funeral for any Christian. But many speakers' words also carried the political tension of the times, references to recent events and the coming elections. Those tensions were reflected in Lewis' own last words, a letter he left to be read the day of his funeral.

"Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble," the letter reads. "Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it."

"I just loved him," said former President Bill Clinton, "I always will, and I am so grateful that he stayed true to form. He has gone up yonder and left us with marching orders."


In his eulogy, Obama carefully reconstructed Lewis' life, from his days growing up in his hometown of Troy to the courage he showed during the civil rights movement to his dignity as a 33-year-member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

"The life of John Lewis was in so many ways exceptional," Obama said. "It vindicated the faith in our founding. It redeemed that faith. That most American of ideas -- 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 nature to remake this country that we love."

Obama said that on the battlefield of justice, Americans like Lewis, the Rev. Joseph Lowery and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, all of whom died this year and to whom he each gave a Presidential Medal of Freedom, helped liberate the country.

"America was built by people like that. He, as much as anyone in history, brought this country a little closer to our highest ideals," Obama said. "And someday, when we do finish that long journey toward freedom, when we do form a more perfect union...whether it is a year from now or decades or even if it takes another two centuries, John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America."


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