Speaking from a pulpit once graced by Martin Luther King Jr, former US president Barack Obama condemned President Donald Trump's use of federal agents against protesters and warned voter rights were under threat.
Former president Barack Obama has issued a stark warning that the voting rights and equal opportunity championed by the late representative John Lewis are being threatened as the US heads into the 2020 election.
Speaking from the pulpit of the church that Martin Luther King Jr. once led, Obama did not mention President Donald Trump by name while delivering a eulogy at the funeral service of civil rights leader Lewis in Atlanta. But the first Black president drew unmistakable contrasts with his successor, and he implicitly lambasted how Trump has handled voting procedures and ongoing civil unrest amid a national reckoning over systemic racism.
“You want to honour John? Let’s honour him by revitalising the law that he was willing to die for,” Obama said on Thursday, arguing that the bipartisan praise for the Georgia congressman since his death isn't enough.
He called on Congress to renew the Voting Rights Act, which Trump and Republican congressional leaders have left unchanged since the Supreme Court diminished the landmark law in 2012.
Lambasts attacks on Black Americans, voter rights
"Today we witness with our own eyes, police officers kneeling on the necks of black Americans," Obama said.
"We can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators," he said.
"Even as we sit here, there are those in power who are doing their darnedest 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," Obama added.
Suggests overhauling voting system
Obama endorsed ending the Senate filibuster if that is what’s needed to pass an overhauled voting law. He called the procedural hurdle that effectively requires 60 votes to pass major legislation a “Jim Crow relic,” referring to the segregation era.
The Democratic-led House has adopted a sweeping rewrite of the Voting Rights Act, now named for Lewis. It faces opposition in the Republican-led Senate and likely couldn't get 60 votes even if Democrats reclaim a narrow majority after the November elections.
Specifically, Obama called for all Americans being registered to vote automatically, restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences, expanding early voting, ending partisan gerrymandering of districts and making Election Day a national holiday.
Obama noted that the original Voting Rights Act of 1965 and its renewals drew Republican and Democratic votes in Congress and were signed by presidents from both parties.
He said those in power were "even undermining the Postal Service in an election that’s going to be dependent on mail-in ballots.”
Trump tweets on postponing US election
Hours before Lewis' funeral, Trump suggested delaying the November election, something he doesn’t have the authority to do.
Trump has falsely claimed that a surge of mail ballots because of the coronavirus pandemic will threaten the election’s legitimacy. Trump has opposed moves in Congress to help the financially struggling US Postal Service handle the sharp uptick in mail voting.
'Conscience of Congress'
In his passionate eulogy, Obama praised Lewis as an American who "brought our country closer to its highest ideals" in his lifelong fight for civil rights.
Obama, joined at the funeral by two fellow former presidents, Republican George W Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, spoke of Lewis's rise from humble beginnings on an Alabama farm to becoming a leader of the 1960s struggle for equal rights for Black Americans.
Ultimately, the man known as the "conscience of Congress" never gave up his drive to make "good trouble" in the cause of justice, Obama said.
Lewis, who was first elected in 1986 to represent Georgia in the US House of Representatives, died on July 17 at age 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
His death came at a time of reckoning across the United States over racial injustice ignited by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25.
"When I was elected to the Senate, I went up and shook his hand and said, 'I am here because of you,'" Obama recalled.
His eulogy ranged from praises for the humble man whose parents "picked someone else's cotton" to the need to keep pushing for a better America and emulate the man who, "even as an old man, he didn't sit out any fight."
Obama said America was built by people like Lewis and should be counted among the Founding Fathers.
Lewis, an Alabama sharecropper's son who strove for equality for Blacks in an America grappling with racial bigotry and segregation, was a fiercely determined champion of nonviolent protest and was inspired by King.
In his speech, Bush remembered joining Lewis in Selma, Alabama, for the 50th anniversary of the watershed 1965 march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
"The story that began in Troy isn't ending here today, nor is the work."
The funeral followed a week of memorial services.