Rep. John Lewis’ funeral, held in Atlanta on Thursday, was invite-only due to coronavirus restrictions. Nonetheless, 50 members of Congress, including Democratic leaders, Congressional Black Caucus members, Ways and Means Committee and Georgia delegation colleagues — in short, Lewis’ best friends — were able to attend.
“In our group we have senior members and we have members of the freshman class,” said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the only lawmaker to speak at the funeral. “John convinced each one of us that we were his best friend in Congress.”
Lewis treated all of his colleagues like best friends, frequently greeting them with familial names like “brother,” “sister” and “daughter.”
Hundreds of lawmakers likely would’ve made the day trip to Atlanta for his funeral if not for the pandemic, as Pelosi acknowledged.
“I’m pleased to be here with so many members, 50,” she said. “We would’ve had more, except coronavirus prevented the church from allowing us to bring more.”
Among those who attended were at least 10 members of the Democratic leadership team. Pelosi noted that she, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn — the top three Democrats — served with Lewis for more than 30 years.
But Lewis also connected with members he only served with for a year and half. At least seven members of the freshman class were among the members at the funeral.
The Congressional Black Caucus was well represented, accounting for roughly half of the members in attendance.
Lewis was a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, so it was not surprising to see Chairman Richard E. Neal and ranking member Kevin Brady, as well as a handful of other tax writers, in attendance.
Brady was one of at least a few Republicans who were invited, including Georgia Rep. Barry Loudermilk and Alabama Rep. Martha Roby.
Pelosi teared up several times during her remarks, like when she noted that the congressional delegation brought with them the flag that flew over the Capitol the night Lewis died.
“When this flag flew there it said goodbye, it waved goodbye to John,” she said.
Another emotional moment came as Pelosi talked about visiting Lewis on Independence Day weekend. She said she brought him an American flag pin like the one she frequently wears, engraved with the phrase, “One country, one destiny.”
“Wasn’t that what John Lewis was all about?” she said.
Pelosi, and others who spoke at the funeral, hit on the many themes of Lewis’ life that have been celebrated in a variety of tributes and memorial services held in the week since his death. Among those themes were his legacy as a Civil Rights activist, a legislator focused on lifting people out of poverty and building a better future for the next generation, a mentor, a peaceful protester and a truth teller.
“That is what John Lewis was all about: Nonviolently insisting on the truth,” Pelosi said. “Every time he stood up to speak, we knew that he was going to take us to a higher place in our understanding, what our responsibilities were and what our opportunities were. ”
Of course no speech about Lewis is complete without mentioning his affinity for stirring up what he called “good trouble.” Pelosi said as Lewis plotted such plans, he did so with “a twinkle in his eye and a spark about it all.”
She referenced the sit-in Lewis led on the House floor in 2016 to protest the Republican leadership’s refusal to bring gun violence prevention legislation to the floor after the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.
“All the members followed him; the floor was covered with people,” Pelosi said. “And we thought, for a moment, that perhaps the police might — because it was disruptive, good trouble. It was clear to them that if they were to arrest John Lewis for doing that, they were going to have to arrest the entire House Democratic Caucus.”
Lewis was not always serious. “He loved to make us laugh, sometimes while he was dancing,” Pelosi said.
The speaker said her granddaughter Bella once asked Lewis if he sang during the Civil Rights movement. “He said, ‘They asked me to sing solo one time — so low so that no one could hear me,’” Pelosi said.
As Pelosi wrapped up her remarks she was brought to tears again recounting how on Tuesday — the last night Lewis lay in state at the Capitol, his casket perched on the East Front steps to allow the public to pay their respects while social distancing — a double rainbow formed over the Capitol despite the rain that was forecasted never materializing.
“He was telling us, ‘I’m home in heaven,’” she said.
Obama’s tribute and surprise news
Pelosi was not the only Washington dignitary to honor Lewis Thursday in Atlanta. The past three presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — all spoke.
Obama, the primary eulogist, noted that Lewis paved the path for him to become the first Black president.
“I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom,” he said, launching into a lengthy recounting of Lewis’ greatest hits in the fight for equal rights.
Celebrating all of Lewis’ achievements, Obama said he helped build America and bring the nation closer to fulfilling its ideals.
“Some day when we do form a more perfect union … John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America,” he said.
While Lewis’ life was “exceptional” in so many ways, he never personally viewed it that way, Obama said.
“Here’s the thing: John never believed that what he did is more than what any citizen of this country can do,” he said.
Obama encouraged anyone listening to continue Lewis’ work, and summon “just a measure of John’s moral courage” and not take what Lewis achieved for granted.
“Democracy isn’t automatic. It has to be nurtured, attended to,” he said.
In that vein, Obama took the moment to call on Congress to honor Lewis “by revitalizing the law he was willing to die for,” the 1965 voting rights law.
The House recently renamed a bill (HR 4) it passed last year to update parts of the voting rights law that the Supreme Court struck down.
“John wouldn’t want us to stop there, trying to get back to where we already were … we should keep marching to make it even better,” Obama said.
He said Congress should make voter registration automatic, expand polling places and establish Election Day as a national holiday and end partisan gerrymandering.
In their first legislative act after taking back the House majority nearly two years ago, Democrats passed those and other voting rights provisions as part of a government overhaul package dubbed HR 1. The Republican-controlled Senate has ignored that measure, as well as the Voting Rights Act reauthorization.
In urging for a voting rights overhaul honoring Lewis’ life work to become law, Obama — whose former vice president, Joe Biden, is the presumptive Democratic nominee for president — made campaign news.
“And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every America then that’s what we should do,” Obama said, referring to the Senate rule that requires 60 votes to advance legislation.
Several Democrats have suggested that if Biden wins the presidency and the party takes control of the Senate they should end the legislative filibuster so they can enact long-stalled Democratic priorities.
But Obama is now the most influential Democrat — notably one extremely close to Biden — to endorse the idea. And in doing so at Lewis’ funeral, he made it clear that it was about more than just politics; it’s also about the movement for racial justice that Lewis pioneered.