Updated 2:33 p.m. ET
The funeral for Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon who was widely revered by his peers as “the conscious of the Congress,” is being held in Atlanta on Thursday at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. served as co-pastor.
Days of ceremonies have honored the longtime congressman in Georgia, his home state of Alabama and Washington, D.C., where he represented Atlanta and some of its suburbs for more than 30 years.
He died at the age of 80 on July 17, after battling pancreatic cancer.
Three former presidents — Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton — are all in attendance. Another former president, Jimmy Carter, did not attend in person but sent condolences that were read aloud at the service.
Obama called Lewis a mentor and a friend. They first met while he was at Harvard Law School, and many years passed before the two men met again, after Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate.
“I told him, ‘John, I’m here because of you,'” Obama recounted.
A similar exchange happened at Obama’s historic first presidential inauguration in 2009.
“He was one of the first people I greeted and hugged on that stand,” Obama said. “And I told him, ‘This is your day too.'”
Lewis’ life was “exceptional” in so many ways, Obama said.
“He, as much as anyone in our history, brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals,” Obama said.
“And some day, when we do finish that long journey towards freedom, when we do form a more perfect union – whether its years 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.”
In a lighter moment during the service, former president Bush spoke of Lewis’ humble beginnings in Troy, Ala., raising chickens on a small family farm. Bush said a young John Lewis tended to them and preached to them.
“When his family claimed one for family supper, John refused to eat one of his flock,” Bush said. “Going hungry was his first act of nonviolent protest,” which drew laughter from the sanctuary.
Bush, a Republican, also recalled seeing Lewis’ spark and passion firsthand. He recalled working with him to bring the National Museum of African American History and Culture to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. In 2008, Bush signed into law the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which Lewis co-sponsored.
“John and I had our disagreements, of course,” Bush said. “But in the America John Lewis fought for and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action.”
Lewis remembered as a ‘true American patriot’
The Rev. Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s youngest daughter, led a prayer during the service. She quoted her father, saying, “Death is not a period that ends this great sentence of life, but a comma which punctuates it to a lofty and higher significance.”
She also thanked Lewis for being a champion in the fight for justice and equality.
“As we honor the life of this nonviolent warrior, who embodied the very spirit of Christ and showed us we have the spiritual power to resist injustice and evil and hatred and vitriol with the force of love and truth, we are eternally grateful,” King said.
Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, called Lewis a “true American patriot.”
Nearly all of the mourners at the church are wearing masks, and Warnock noted that the pandemic has made grieving for Lewis even more challenging.
“At a time where we would feel comfort in embracing one another, love compels us to socially distance from one another,” Warnock said. “But make no mistake: We are together in principle, even if not in proximity.”
Singer Jennifer Holliday sang a resounding rendition of “Only What You Do for Christ Will Last and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”
Lewis in his own words
Lewis helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and was the last surviving speaker from the event.
On the day of his funeral, The New York Times published an opinion piece penned by the congressman shortly before his death.
Lewis said he was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and hopeful about the next chapter for America.
“Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble,” Lewis wrote. “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.”
“That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day,” he added. “I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on.”
The visit in June to the renamed plaza in Washington, D.C., was his final public appearance.
Days of remembrances
On Wednesday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms set aside their ongoing legal battle over requiring residents to wear facial coverings to pay tribute to Lewis at the Georgia State Capitol Rotunda.
“In our country’s most trying moments, Congressman Lewis taught us the lesson of joyful, steadfast commitment to ideals bigger than one man or one movement,” Kemp said, as Georgia Public Broadcasting reported. “As we mourn his passing, we should all recommit ourselves to the principles he fought for: our country’s core foundation in liberty, freedom, and justice for all.”
The Atlanta mayor remembered Lewis as always being available to his constituents.
“Although an Alabama legend, an Atlanta icon and an American hero, Congressman Lewis took time to let me know — to let all of us know — that we matter to him,” Bottoms said, according to GPB.
Lewis also lay in state at the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, the first Black lawmaker to receive that honor. At a ceremony there on Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said her longtime colleague was respected by members on both sides of the aisle and in both chambers of Congress.
“We knew he always worked on the side of angels, and now we know that he is with them,” Pelosi said.
On Sunday, Lewis made one final trip across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., where law enforcement attacked protesters in 1965 as they attempted to cross the bridge. That day has become known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Lewis was badly beaten there in 1965, but on Sunday, he was saluted by Alabama state troopers as his casket made its way across the bridge, led by a trail of red rose petals.