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Mourners Gather For For The Funeral Of Congressman John Lewis


Georgia congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis was laid to rest in Atlanta today. A somber private burial service ended six days of mourning that saw Lewis honored in his home state of Alabama, the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and today in the congressional district he represented for more than 30 years. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.


DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The homegoing for Democratic Congressman John Lewis was held in his longtime church - Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist, once co-pastored by his mentor Martin Luther King Jr.


RAPHAEL WARNOCK: America's freedom church...

ELLIOTT: Reverend Raphael Warnock, Ebenezer's senior pastor, officiated, calling Lewis the hope and promise of democracy.


WARNOCK: He became a living, walking sermon about truth-telling and justice-making in the earth. He loved America until America learned how to love him back. We celebrate John Lewis.


ELLIOTT: The service was a mix of personal and political tributes, noting both his pivotal role in the civil rights movement and his legacy in advocating for human rights through legislation during his 33 years in the House of Representatives, where he became known as the conscience of the Congress.

As a young man, Lewis helped organize lunch counter sit-ins, Freedom Rides and voting rights campaigns. He was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington, demanding freedom now in a fiery speech. He was brutally beaten and arrested more than 40 times fighting for equality for African Americans.


BARACK OBAMA: I've come here today because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom.

ELLIOTT: The nation's first Black president, Barack Obama, gave the eulogy, highlighting Lewis' admonition to this new generation of Black Lives Matter protesters to keep pressing and make what Lewis called good trouble in pursuit of America's promise.


OBAMA: When we do for 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.


ELLIOTT: Obama was critical of new attacks on the gains Lewis achieved in his lifetime, saying, quote, "those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting and attacking our voting rights with tactical precision" (ph). Former President Bill Clinton spoke. And Jimmy Carter, unable to travel, sent a letter. Republican George W. Bush also offered a tribute to Lewis, acknowledging they had their policy disagreements.


GEORGE W BUSH: 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.


ELLIOTT: The fiercest call to action came from the Reverend James Lawson, the 91-year-old Methodist minister who helped school John Lewis in the strategy of nonviolence.


JAMES LAWSON: We do not need bipartisan politics if we're going to celebrate the life of John Lewis. We need the Constitution to come alive.

ELLIOTT: Outside the sanctuary, Geralean Molette, a retired respiratory therapist, watched the service on a giant Jumbotron. She says when she was a child, her family housed Freedom Riders in Mississippi, and she wanted to pay her respects.

GERALEAN MOLETTE: John Lewis was one of my favorite people. I grew up on a farm just like he did, and we had to work our butts off. And we learned to love and forgive. My parents worked under very hard Jim Crow. And they taught me if I carried that hate, I would never succeed.

ELLIOTT: The same philosophy championed by John Lewis, who believed hate could not prevail.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.