Obama, joined by fellow past presidents, eulogizes Rep. John Lewis at MLK's Atlanta church

Three presidents attended the funeral for the civil rights hero

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Former President Barack Obama delivered the eulogy for the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Thursday afternoon, capping off a day of heartfelt tributes to honor the legacy of the civil rights icon and the example he set for America to keep marching toward racial justice and a more perfect union.

"John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America," Obama said.

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)

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)

The funeral for the late congressman took place at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga. -- the church where Martin Luther King, Jr., was baptized and served as a pastor and where his funeral was held after his 1968 assassination.

Obama looked back on Lewis's storied efforts to dismantle America's system of segregationism and prejudice while issuing a political call to action to tackle today's unfinished business.

Paramount is passing a new Voting Rights Act, Obama said.

"You want to honor, John? Let's honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for," Obama said.

Obama then made a case for granting statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, turning Election Day into a national holiday, implementing automatic voter registration and getting rid of the Senate's filibuster, "a Jim Crow relic," to make these voting rights issues a reality.

The former president turned his attention to today's political turmoil. He referenced George Floyd’s death, the Trump Administration sending in federal agents to quash protests and challenges to mail-in voting during this “urgent” upcoming election.

“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 continued: “We may no longer have to guess the number of jellybeans in a jar in order to cast a ballot, but even as we sit here, 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 going to be dependent on mail-in ballots so people don't get sick.”

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)

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)

Obama acknowledged his political remarks may be unwelcomed by some.

“I know this is a celebration of John's life," Obama said. "There are some who might say we shouldn't dwell on such things. But that's why I'm talking about it. John was devoting his time on this earth [to] fighting the very attacks on democracy.”

Three former American presidents gave tributes at Lewis' funeral Thursday -- George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Obama. About 50 of Lewis' colleagues from the House attended the Atlanta service as well as Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Cory Booker, D-N.J.

Bush, the first former president to speak, told a story of a young Lewis raising chickens in Troy, Ala. and how he cared so much for the flock that he baptized them, married them and preached to them. When his parents wanted to eat one for dinner, Lewis refused. “Going hungry was his first act of nonviolent protest,” Bush quipped.

Bush recalled working with Lewis to bring the National Museum of African American History to the National Mall in Washington and passing the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act.

“John Lewis believed in the Lord. He believed in humanity and he believed in America," said Bush, who was joined by former first lady Laura Bush. "He’s been called an American saint.”

Clinton honored Lewis' passion to keep moving toward progress no matter the adversity.

"It's important that all of us who loved him remember that he was after all a human being -- a man like all other humans, born with strengths that he made the most of when many don't," Clinton said. "Born with weaknesses, that he worked hard to beat down when many can't. He was still a person. It made it more interesting and it made him, in my mind, even greater."

Clinton marveled at Lewis' final letter -- published in The New York Times -- that gave the country hope.

POSTHUMOUS LETTER FROM JOHN LEWIS PUBLISHED

"It is so fitting on the day of his service. He leaves us our marching orders: Keep moving," Clinton said.

Former President Bill Clinton speaks during the funeral service 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)

Former President Bill Clinton speaks during the funeral service 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)

Lewis, a longtime friend of the Clintons, initially endorsed Hillary Clinton, then a senator from New York, during the 2008 presidential election, but switched to Obama after the Georgia primary to reflect the will of his constituents.

"Something is happening in America," Lewis said at the time in backing Obama. "There is a movement, there is a spirit, there is an enthusiasm in the hearts and minds of the American people that I have not seen in a long time, since the candidacy of Robert Kennedy. The people are pressing for a new day in American politics, and I think they see Sen. Barack Obama as a symbol of that change."

Obama honored Lewis in 2011 with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. During the White House ceremony, Obama recalled Lewis returning to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. even after he was beaten within an inch of his life. Obama said for generations from now parents will evoke Lewis when they teach their children about courage.

FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2011, file photo, President Barack Obama presents a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Lewis, who carried the struggle against racial discrimination from Southern battlegrounds of the 1960s to the halls of Congress, died Friday, July 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

FILE - In this Feb. 15, 2011, file photo, President Barack Obama presents a 2010 Presidential Medal of Freedom to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Lewis, who carried the struggle against racial discrimination from Southern battlegrounds of the 1960s to the halls of Congress, died Friday, July 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Obama began his tribute Thursday by calling Lewis "a man of pure joy and unbreakable perseverance" and thanking Lewis for his mentorship.

"I've come here today because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom," the nation's first African American president said.

Obama first met Lewis when he was a law school student. The young Obama approached Lewis after his speech and said: "You are one of my heroes."

Obama recalled Lewis's humble beginnings and setting out on his dangerous mission to change America by boarding a segregated bus with friend Bernard Lafayette.

"Imagine the courage of two people Malia's age, younger than my oldest daughter, on their own, to challenge an entire infrastructure of oppression," Obama said. "John was only 20 years old."

Lewis was the son of Alabama sharecroppers and engaged in decades of activism before being elected to Congress in 1987 and living to see Obama's inauguration in 2009.

After the inauguration, Lewis asked the newly minted president to sign his program. Obama told his hero the historic day was for him, too. He signed the program: “Because of you, John.”

REP. JOHN LEWIS: TIMELINE OF EVENTS IN A REMARKABLE LIFE

Lewis said he never could have dreamed of an African American president.

"When we were organizing voter-registration drives, going on the Freedom Rides, sitting in, coming here to Washington for the first time, getting arrested, going to jail, being beaten, I never thought — I never dreamed — of the possibility that an African American would one day be elected president of the United States,” Lewis wrote shortly before Obama assumed office.

Lewis by 1963 had been arrested no fewer than 24 times while protesting, and by the end of his career had been arrested more than 40 times. He liked to talk about getting into "good trouble."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who often called Lewis the "conscience of the Congres," shared one example of Lewis making mischief by leading a sit-in on the House floor in 2016 to call for a vote on gun control in the wake of the Pulse Nightclub massacre.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauds during the funeral service 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)

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi applauds during the funeral service 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)

She marveled at the double rainbow that appeared in Washington this week above Lewis' casket and said it was a sign from above.

"He was telling us 'I'm home in heaven,"' Pelosi said. "...We always knew he worked on the side of the angels. And now he is with them. May he rest in peace."

King Jr.'s daughter Bernice King led a prayer thanking God for the "non-violent warrior" and called for "good trouble" to continue until "Black bodies are no longer a threat in this world, and Black lives have equitable representation, power and influence in every arena."

Arthur Blank pays his respects to the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., before the funeral service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)

Arthur Blank pays his respects to the late Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., before the funeral service at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Thursday, July 30, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)

President Trump and former President Jimmy Carter, 95, were not in attendance. A letter from Carter, however, was read at the funeral.

Lewis this week was lying in state at the U.S. Capitol for three days as part of a six-day celebration of his life planned by his family. The celebration included a processional over the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where he was beaten in 1965 as he led a group marching from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery, Ala., protesting obstacles to Black peoples' right to vote.

Lewis also was honored at the Alabama state Capitol and his casket was driven past the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., where he was the youngest speaker at the 1963 March on Washington -- the event where King, Jr., made his "I Have a Dream" speech.

JOHN LEWIS, CIVIL RIGHTS ICON, CONGRESSMAN FOR 33 YEARS, DEAD AT 80

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

Former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush are seated for the funeral service 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)

Former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura Bush are seated for the funeral service 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)

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

After the service, Lewis' body traveled by motorcade to South-View Cemetery, which will be Lewis' final resting place. According to its website, South-View Cemetery was founded after the end of the Civil War by former slaves and inters the bodies of more than 80,000 African Americans.

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King, Jr., and Dr. Benjamin Mays, another high-profile civil rights leader, were both initially buried at South-View before being moved, the South-View website says. And Lt. Henry O. Flipper, the "Buffalo Soldier" who was the first Black man to graduate from West Point, was also at South-View for a time before his military honors were posthumously returned and he was moved to a military cemetery. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Martin Luther King Sr. -- the father of the famed civil rights leader -- is still buried at South-View.

Fox News' Tyler Olson, Chad Pergram, Mike Emanuel, Morgan Phillips and Ronn Blitzer, as well as The Associated Press, contributed to this report.