Former US presidents mourn John Lewis at funeral in Atlanta

Former US presidents mourn John Lewis at funeral in Atlanta
John Lewis Remembered

John Lewis has been mourned, revered and celebrated at the church where Martin Luther King Jr used to be pastor in Atlanta, Georgia.

The US congressman and civil rights leader died on July 17 at the age of 80.

Former president Barack Obama attended the funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church, a sacred place for many of those who helped to shape US civil rights history, and was expected to address mourners.

Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush and former first lady Laura Bush were also in the church.

George W Bush speaks at John Lewis’s funeral (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)

“Here lies a true American patriot who risked his life for the hope and promise of democracy,” Ebenezer’s senior pastor, the Rev Raphael Warnock, told the congregation as the funeral began.

One of Mr King’s daughters, the Rev Bernice King, led the congregation in prayer: “We will continue to get into good trouble as long as you grant us the breath to do so,” she said.

Outside the church, hundreds gathered to watch the service on a large screen. Some sang the gospel song We Shall Overcome.

When Mr Lewis was 15, he heard Mr King’s sermons on WRMA, a radio station in Montgomery, Alabama, he recalled in an interview for the Southern Oral History Programme.

A picture of Barack Obama awarding the Medal of Freedom to John Lewis is held up by a mourner outside the church (Steve Schaefer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

“Later I saw him on many occasions in Nashville while I was in school between 1958 and ’61,” Mr Lewis said. “In a sense, he was my leader.”

Mr King was “the person who, more than any other, continued to influence my life, who made me who I was,” Mr Lewis wrote in his 1998 autobiography, Walking With The Wind.

By the summer of 1963, Mr Lewis was addressing thousands of people during the March on Washington, speaking shortly before Mr King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. He spoke then about black people beaten by police and jailed – themes that resonate vividly in today’s times.

In 1965, Lewis was beaten by Alabama state troopers in the city of Selma in what became known as “Bloody Sunday”.

Last Sunday, his coffin was carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The wagon rolled over a carpet of rose petals on the bridge that spans the Alabama River. On the south side of the bridge, where Mr Lewis was attacked by the police officers, family members placed red roses that the carriage rolled over, marking the spot where Mr Lewis spilled his blood and suffered a head injury.

A mourner weeps outside Ebenezer Baptist Church (AP/Brynn Anderson)

Mr Lewis was later awarded the Medal of Freedom by the nation’s first black president in 2011.

He spent more than three decades in Congress, and his district included most of Atlanta.

Shortly before he died, Mr Lewis wrote an essay for The New York Times and asked that it be published on the day of his funeral. In the piece published, he recalled the teachings of Mr King.

“He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice,” Mr Lewis wrote. “He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out.”

“Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe,” Mr Lewis added.

“In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”

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