Former US presidents mourn John Lewis at funeral in Atlanta

John Lewis has been mourned, revered and celebrated as an American hero at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church – a sacred place for many of those who helped to shape civil rights history.

Three former presidents joined in the eulogies after nearly a week of mourning that took him from his birthplace in Alabama to the nation’s capital of Washington to his final resting place in his home of Atlanta.

Mr Lewis was “a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance”, former president Barack Obama said during a fiery speech in which he hearkened back to Mr Lewis’ legacy and connected it to the ongoing fight against those who are “doing their darndest to discourage people from voting”.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>George W Bush speaks at John Lewis’s funeral (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)</figcaption>
George W Bush speaks at John Lewis’s funeral (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)

“He as much as anyone in our history brought this country a little bit closer to our highest ideals,” Mr Obama said.

“And some day when we do finish that long journey towards 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.”

Former president George W Bush said Mr Lewis preached the Gospel and lived its ideals, “insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope”.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>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)</figcaption>
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)

Mr Lewis died on July 17 at the age of 80.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recalled how Mr Lewis’ body was lying in state at the US Capitol earlier this week, and a double rainbow appeared.

“There was this double rainbow over the casket,” she said. “He was telling us, ‘I’m home in heaven, I’m home in heaven.’ We always knew he worked on the side of angels, and now he is with them.”

The arc of Mr Lewis’ legacy of activism was once again tied to Ebenezer’s former pastor Martin Luther King Jr, whose sermons Mr Lewis discovered while scanning the radio dial as a 15-year-old boy growing up in then-segregated Alabama.

<figcaption class='imgFCap'>A mourner weeps outside Ebenezer Baptist Church (AP/Brynn Anderson)</figcaption>
A mourner weeps outside Ebenezer Baptist Church (AP/Brynn Anderson)

Mr King continued to inspire Mr Lewis’ civil rights work for the next 65 years as he fought segregation during sometimes bloody marches, Greyhound bus “Freedom Rides” across the South and later during his long tenure in the US Congress.

“Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America,” Mr Lewis said of his run-ins with the law. The phrase was repeated several times during the funeral.

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

“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.

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

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