Obama Calls for Expansion of Voting Rights During Stirring Eulogy for John Lewis
Former President Barack Obama, addresses the service during the funeral for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)

While honoring Congressman John Lewis, Obama rebuked the GOP and issued an urgent call to action on voting rights.

Former President Barack Obama on Thursday delivered a passionate eulogy for Georgia Congressman John Lewis, in which he honored the civil rights icon and called on Americans to fulfill the late lawmaker’s mission of advancing democracy and attaining freedom and equality for all. 

“America was built by John Lewises,” Obama said. “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, 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.”

Lewis was one of the leaders of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and helped push for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned discrimination on the basis of race, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed Black Americans the right to vote. The 80-year-old passed away last week after a battle with pancreatic cancer. 

Obama said he personally “owed a great debt” to Lewis and called him an “American whose faith was tested again and again to produce a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance.”

Speaking from the pulpit of the Atlanta church that Martin Luther King Jr. once led, Obama made clear that Lewis’ life work remained unfinished, as evidenced by the killing of George Floyd and the Trump administration’s deployment of federal forces to Portland to violently attack protesters.

“Bull Connor may be gone, but today we witness — with our own eyes — police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans,” Obama said. “George Wallace may be gone but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”

Obama said that it was up to Americans to honor Lewis’ life and continue his fight.

“We’re born with instructions to form a more perfect union,” Obama said. “Explicit in those words is the idea that we’re imperfect. What gives each new generation purpose is to take up the unfinished work of the last generation and carry it further than any might have thought possible.”

On the very same day that President Trump—who was not at the service—suggested delaying the November elections, Obama leveled an implicit critique at the GOP for undermining the electoral process and suppressing Americans’ right to vote—attacks that represent everything Lewis stood up against.

“There are those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting by closing polling locations and targeting minorities and students with restrictive ID laws and attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the postal service in the run up to an election that’s gonna’ be dependent on mail-in ballots” Obama said.

Obama called for an expansion of the Voting Rights Act by restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals, making Election Day a public holiday, opening more polling locations, and approving statehood for Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, which would give them full representation in Congress for the first time. The former president also touched upon partisan gerrymandering and automatic voter registration. 

“You want to honor John, let’s honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for,” Obama said of the Voting Rights Act. House Democrats passed H.R. 4—which has since been renamed the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act—in December 2019, but the Republican-controlled Senate has so far refused to take up the bill. The legislation would restore key provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. 

RELATED: New Voting Rights Bill Is a Tribute to Late Rep. John Lewis

That ruling ended federal oversight of towns, counties, and states with a history of voter discrimination, allowing them to enact voting laws without federal approval. Since 2013, many of those jurisdictions have enacted barriers to voting, which voters’ rights advocates say disproportionately affect voters of color. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act would restore those protections.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, echoed Obama’s demand on Twitter. 

In perhaps the biggest takeaway from his speech, Obama made clear that, if necessary, he supported ending the filibuster, which he decried as a “Jim Crow relic” that makes it impossible to pass major legislation without 60 votes. By publicly supporting the elimination of the filibuster, Obama could shift the conversation in favor of ending the procedural tool that stifles bipartisan compromise and was used relentlessly by Congress during his administration. 

Some moderate Democrats have been loath to eliminate the filibuster, even as progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) support doing away with the rule. Biden recently indicated he was open to ending the filibuster, depending on how obstructionist Republicans were during his potential administration.

“It’s going to depend on how obstreperous they become,” the former vice president told reporters this month. “But I think you’re going to just have to take a look at it.”

Obama’s eulogy made clear that if doing so was the cost of restoring and preserving American Democracy, then it was worth it. After all—Obama emphasized—that Democracy is what defined John Lewis’ more than 60 year fight for equality and civil rights. 

“John spent his life defending the attacks on democracy that we witness circulating right now,” Obama said. “If we want our children to grow up in a true democracy, a representative democracy, be a part of tolerant, inclusive America, we are going to have to be more like John.”