Former President Barack Obama on Saturday paid tribute to Rep. John Lewis and his “enormous impact” on America’s history, saying that his election as the first Black president was possible because of the sacrifices Lewis made.
“I first met John when I was in law school, and I told him then that he was one of my heroes. Years later, when I was elected a U.S. Senator, I told him that I stood on his shoulders,” Obama wrote in a statement following Lewis’ death. “When I was elected President of the United States, I hugged him on the inauguration stand before I was sworn in and told him I was only there because of the sacrifices he made.”
Obama said Lewis “never stopped providing wisdom and encouragement to me” and former first lady Michelle, and their family. “We will miss him dearly,” he said.
Lewis, a Democrat who served as the US representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District for more than three decades, died Friday at the age of 80 after a six-month battle with cancer.
He was a Freedom Rider in the early 1960s, a keynote speaker at the historic 1963 March on Washington, and helped lead a march in 1965 for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where he and other marchers were brutally beaten by police.
Lewis had described attending Obama’s 2009 inauguration as an “out-of-body” experience.
“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,” he said at the time.
In 2011, Obama awarded Lewis the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“He loved this country so much that he risked his life and his blood so that it might live up to its promise. And through the decades, he not only gave all of himself to the cause of freedom and justice, but inspired generations that followed to try to live up to his example,” Obama wrote in his statement Saturday.
Obama said that in “so many ways, John’s life was exceptional” and given his “enormous impact on the history of this country, what always struck those who met John was his gentleness and humility.”
“He believed that in all of us, there exists the capacity for great courage, a longing to do what’s right, a willingness to love all people, and to extend to them their God-given rights to dignity and respect. And it’s because he saw the best in all of us that he will continue, even in his passing, to serve as a beacon in that long journey towards a more perfect union,” he wrote.
The 44th President said “it’s fitting” that the last time he and Lewis shared a public forum was a virtual town hall with activists helping lead protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
The two men spoke privately after, Obama said, and Lewis told him “he could not have been prouder of their efforts – of a new generation standing up for freedom and equality, a new generation intent on voting and protecting the right to vote, a new generation running for political office.”
“Not many of us get to live to see our own legacy play out in such a meaningful, remarkable way. John Lewis did,” Obama wrote. “And 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.”