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The embodiment of Lewis' lifelong sacrifice set to honor him at crucial moment in US history

Inside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s church in Atlanta, the nation's first Black president -- who has acknowledged there only was a Black president because of...

Posted: Jul 30, 2020 10:53 AM
Updated: Jul 30, 2020 3:12 PM

Inside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s church in Atlanta, the nation's first Black president -- who has acknowledged there only was a Black president because of what Civil Rights icon and eventual Congressman John Lewis sacrificed -- will deliver the eulogy. His two White predecessors, both children of a Civil Rights era that Lewis helped galvanize, will speak before him.

At a moment when the country is reckoning anew over questions of systemic racism following the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless other Black and Brown Americans, Thursday's funeral is a measuring moment: Both a time to reflect on the grainy black-and-white newsreels of another generation's struggle and an opportunity to assess where that struggle continues to come up short.

It's the type of remembrance that marks the passage of a nation's history, provides a record of its highest and lowest moments and lays down a marker for the type of person -- the type of hero -- deserving of the country's attention and respect.

Lewis' own words kicked off the day of remembrance, with a post-humous op-ed in The New York Times, that echoed the principles with which he lived his life.

"When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself," he wrote, recalling his own lessons from King.

While not at all unexpected, the absence Thursday of the sitting president remains conspicuous.

Remembering heroes was once something Washington could agree on. But maybe, like so much else, that's an idea from another time.

Lewis' funeral won't be the first high-profile memorial that President Donald Trump skips, and as both a lifetime member of the nation's most exclusive club and a renowned grudge-holder, it likely will not be the last.

Yet however obvious it was, Trump's decision to forgo paying his respects -- which he declared decisively even before his aides could weigh the pros and cons -- is still a stark reminder of the rabidly polarized era of politics over which he presides.

He has continued to stoke a racial divide that Lewis spent his life working to bridge. As the country buckled earlier this summer under racial tensions and outcry over police brutality, Trump harkened back to 1960s rhetoric that wouldn't have been unfamiliar to Lewis, who was beaten and bloodied by police during the Civil Rights movement.

As Trump evoked "vicious dogs" that would restore order and used a phrase coined by a racist police chief in 1968 to warn that "when the looting starts the shooting starts," Lewis encouraged protesters to continue the work that he started decades ago.

Lewis wrote that even in his last days, the protests sparked by Floyd's killing filled him with hope.

"That is why I had to visit Black Lives Matter Plaza in Washington, though I was admitted to the hospital the following day. I just had to see and feel it for myself that, after many years of silent witness, the truth is still marching on," he wrote, adding that "Emmett Till was my George Floyd. He was my Rayshard Brooks, Sandra Bland and Breonna Taylor."

Even as recently as this week, Trump has used a rollback of a federal anti-segregation rule to appeal to White suburbanites, a tactic that seems to have a direct line to the racist policies Lewis was seeking to overturn half a century ago.

It's hard to imagine how those messages or that messenger would have fit in at Lewis' funeral. Yet political leaders have long put aside even their biggest differences to commemorate those few lives that can be said to have altered history.

Obama-Lewis vision of America

Speaking in 2015 at the 50th anniversary memorial of the "Bloody Sunday" march in Selma, Alabama -- an event that brought together Republicans and Democrats alike -- President Barack Obama seemed to predict an era of White nostalgia that would come to pass as a patriotic litmus test under Trump.

Citing marchers like Lewis who were beaten by state troopers as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to Montgomery to demand voting rights, Obama said that was true patriotism -- a stark contrast to Trump, who has decried protesters as un-American and intent on erasing history.

"That's what it means to love America. That's what it means to believe in America," Obama said of the marchers, adding later: "That's what America is, not stock photos or airbrushed history or feeble attempts to define some of us as more American as others."

That vision of America is not shared by Obama's successor, who has used monuments and statues, including those to Confederate generals, as a rallying cry in his reelection bid.

Both men have governed during times of intense racial divide: Obama reckoned with racially charged protests in Missouri and Maryland during his second term, and Trump now confronts ongoing unrest and outcry over the more recent police killings.

It seems unlikely that Obama would forgo the opportunity on Thursday to raise, again, the issues of racial disparity that continue to grip the nation.

He has used funerals in the past to deliver searing speeches on race -- most notably during a eulogy for the murdered pastor of a Charleston church that ended with a sung verse of "Amazing Grace."

And while he has openly attributed the possibility of his election to forebears like Lewis -- "I was only there because of the sacrifices he made," Obama said he told Lewis at his inauguration -- he has also been frank that neither the fact he was elected nor the efforts he made while in office have been enough to combat still-existent racial divides.

"Thanks to him, we now all have our marching orders -- to keep believing in the possibility of remaking this country we love until it lives up to its full promise," Obama said in his statement following Lewis' death earlier this month.

Nearly every other American political leader in Washington -- including Vice President Mike Pence, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, along with Democrats such as former Vice President Joe Biden -- paid in-person tribute to Lewis this week in some fashion.

A cursory acknowledgment

Trump did issue a cursory statement on Twitter following the civil rights leader's death and ordered flags lowered: "Saddened to hear the news of civil rights hero John Lewis passing. Melania and I send our prayers to he and his family," he tweeted.

It did not go unnoticed that his Twitter remembrance of the late television host Regis Philbin, who also died recently, was nearly three times as long.

In an era of intense political divides, Trump's decision to avoid Lewis' funeral is not surprising. Lewis refused to attend Trump's inauguration in 2017 and declared him an illegitimate president. Trump subsequently said Lewis should focus on improving his district, calling it "crime infested."

When Trump announced unequivocally that he would not travel to the Capitol to pay his respects, some aides were caught off-guard because the issue hadn't been decisively settled on internally, one administration official said.

Trump's distaste for the rituals of remembrance and tradition for people he dislikes have by now been well established. While he has shown an affinity for some trappings of his job, the President has little patience for its rituals when they do not revolve around him. Aides have said they have little interest in bringing Trump to places he is clearly unwelcome and could become a distraction.

He has shown similar disregard -- and at times open hostility -- for those idolized by most of the Washington establishment, at least in death. He was pointedly not invited to the funeral held in the Washington National Cathedral for Sen. John McCain, who was eulogized instead by two former presidents, George W. Bush and Obama.

Instead of attending that funeral, Trump played a round of golf and, according to aides, sulked at the attention and adulation being mounted upon one of his avowed nemeses. Later, he complained that McCain's family never thanked him for approving certain aspects of the service.

The one prominent funeral that Trump did attend, for former President George H.W. Bush, remains the only time he's come face-to-face with his living predecessors since his inauguration. The encounter, at least by the looks of video footage, was chilly.

This month, Trump removed portraits of the younger Bush and Bill Clinton that were hanging prominently in the White House and moved them to a room used to store tablecloths and unused furniture.

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