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Read the Full Transcript of Obama’s Eulogy for John Lewis

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And the thing is,...

And the thing is, I imagine initially that day, the troopers thought that they had won the battle. You can imagine the conversations they had afterwards. You can imagine them saying, “Yeah, we showed them.” They figured they’d turned the protesters back over the bridge; that they’d kept, that they’d preserved a system that denied the basic humanity of their fellow citizens. Except this time, there were some cameras there. This time, the world saw what happened, bore witness to Black Americans who were asking for nothing more than to be treated like other Americans. Who were not asking for special treatment, just the equal treatment promised to them a century before, and almost another century before that.

When John woke up, and checked himself out of the hospital, he would make sure the world saw a movement that was, in the words of Scripture, “hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.” They returned to Brown Chapel, a battered prophet, bandages around his head, and he said more marchers will come now. And the people came. And the troopers parted. And the marchers reached Montgomery. And their words reached the White House — and Lyndon Johnson, son of the South, said “We shall overcome,” and the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.

The life of John Lewis was, in so many ways, exceptional. It vindicated the faith in our founding, redeemed that faith; that most American of ideas; that idea 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 power to remake this country that we love until it more closely aligns with our highest ideals. What a radical ideal. What a revolutionary notion. This idea that any of us, ordinary people, a young kid from Troy can stand up to the powers and principalities and say no this isn’t right, this isn’t true, this isn’t just. We can do better. On the battlefield of justice, Americans like John, Americans like the Reverends Lowery and C.T. Vivian, two other patriots that we lost this year, liberated all of us that many Americans came to take for granted.

America was built by people like them. America was built by John Lewises. He as much as anyone in our history brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals. And someday, when we do finish that long journey toward freedom; when we do form a more perfect union — whether it’s 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.

And yet, as exceptional as John was, here’s the thing: John never believed that what he did was more than any citizen of this country can do. I mentioned in the statement the day John passed, the thing about John was just how gentle and humble he was. And despite this storied, remarkable career, he treated everyone with kindness and respect because it was innate to him — this idea that any of us can do what he did if we are willing to persevere.

He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, that in all of us there is a longing to do what’s right, that in all of us there is a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect. So many of us lose that sense. It’s taught out of us. We start feeling as if, in fact, that we can’t afford to extend kindness or decency to other people. That we’re better off if we are above other people and looking down on them, and so often that’s encouraged in our culture. But John always saw the best in us. And he never gave up, and never stopped speaking out because he saw the best in us. He believed in us even when we didn’t believe in ourselves. As a Congressman, he didn’t rest; he kept getting himself arrested. As an old man, he didn’t sit out any fight; he sat in, all night long, on the floor of the United States Capitol. I know his staff was stressed.

But the testing of his faith produced perseverance. He knew that the march is not yet over, that the race is not yet won, that we have not yet reached that blessed destination where we are judged by the content of our character. He knew from his own life that progress is fragile; that we have to be vigilant against the darker currents of this country’s history, of our own history, with their whirlpools of violence and hatred and despair that can always rise again.

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2020-08-10

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