Democracies can definitely do beautiful ceremonies.
The sight of Rep. John L. Lewis’ flag-draped casket being carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on a horse-drawn caisson for the last time was a case in point.
Mr. Lewis, who represented Georgia’s fifth congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1987 until his death July 17, was badly beaten on the Pettus Bridge by state troopers and police in 1965, when, as a young man, he joined other civil rights marchers on the bridge.
The incident became known as Bloody Sunday, a disgrace to our nation. Lewis rose above it, becoming one of the most prominent legislators in Washington, and the United States has since gone a great distance in rectifying the racial injustice of that era.
We as Americans can be proud of both Mr. Lewis, who, by all accounts was a man remarkably free of bitterness, beloved by his family and colleagues, and of our country, which has made so much progress since Mr. Lewis’ first attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
That is why former President Barack Obama’s harshly political funeral oration at Mr. Lewis’s last stop at Atlanta’s famous Ebenezer Baptist Church, whose pulpit was once occupied by Lewis’ old friend, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was so jarring.
Here is what some of what the former President said:
“Bull Connor may be gone,” Mr. Obama said, referring to the 1960s-era public safety commissioner of Birmingham, Ala., who turned fire hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters. “But today, we witness, with our own eyes, police officers kneeling on the necks of Black Americans.”
George Wallace, the Alabama governor who endorsed segregation and used racist language, may also be gone, Mr. Obama continued. “But we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”
And while insuperable poll tests for Black people may be a thing of the past, Mr. Obama 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.”
So, the first African American President of the United States, elected twice, says things haven’t improved much since the days of Bull Connor? Sure sounds that way.
The horrific death of George Floyd, which President Obama mentioned without naming Floyd, shocked the nation. I don’t know anybody who wasn’t stunned. But the former President implies we are a nation in which police officers routinely kneel on black men.
It is also an America where the federal government sends “agents” to use tear gas and batons against “peaceful demonstrators.” Law enforcement has been restrained, as demonstrations have turned violent, and federal officials have only acted defensively to protect federal property.
But you could almost think nothing has changed since Bull Connor if you listened to the former President. The speech (for that is what it was) portrayed voter ID requirements as racist and the Senate filibuster as a remnant of Jim Crow.
You can disagree on voter IDs and the filibuster, but the former President disgracefully attributed the vilest motives to those who don’t agree with him, just the very last thing that is needed in these polarized times. Couldn’t Barack Obama have found some kind words about the nation that twice elected him to its highest honor?
By the way, George W. Bush rose to the occasion with a beautiful tribute to Lewis. Lewis boycotted both of Bush’s inaugurations, but that did not deter Bush from delivering a fond and lovely funeral oration.
I’ve decided to focus on the stirring scene of Lewis’s last journey across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, reflecting on a remarkable man and a remarkable country that has changed so much, thanks in part to men and women like John Lewis.
Honestly, President Obama seemed to be living in the past.