Former United States President Barack Obama has sharply criticized what he described as a Republican attempt to suppress voters in a speech at the funeral of civil rights leader John Lewis.
He said the people in power are “attacking our voting rights with surgical precision”; and called for sweeping reform.
He also condemned the killing of George Floyd police and the subsequent use of federal agents against protesters.
Lewis died of cancer earlier this month at the age of 80.
He was one of the leaders of the “Big Six” civil rights, which included Martin Luther King Jr., and helped organize the historic 1963 March in Washington.
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In a fiery eulogy given at Ebeneezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Mr. Obama, a Democrat, launched a fierce attack on the administration of Republican President Donald Trump and several police departments.
“Today we witness with our own eyes, police officers kneeling on the necks of black Americans,” he said. “We can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.”
He said people in government were “doing their best to discourage people from voting” by closing polling stations and imposing “restrictive identity laws” on minorities and students.
Mr. Obama singled out the role of the U.S. Postal Service in delivering postal votes amid the coronavirus pandemic. Earlier Thursday, Mr Trump suggested that the November 2020 presidential election should be delayed because he said – without providing evidence – that postal voting would allow large-scale voter fraud.
Mr. Obama also proposed a series of reforms to vote in the US, including:
- making sure Americans are automatically registered to vote
- Voting for ex-prisoners who had “won their second chance”
- creation of new polling stations and expansion of early voting
- making Election Day a national holiday, so that workers who can not rest time can vote
He also called for people in Washington DC and Puerto Rico to have the same representation as other Americans, a beloved ambition for Democrats.
Washington is a federal district and so has no representative in Congress, but only one delegate in the House of Representatives with limited powers. Puerto Rico is an American territory that has no representation in Congress and Puerto Ricans cannot vote in the presidential election.
And he called for an end to the filibuster – which requires 60 votes to pass legislation instead of a simple majority of 51. He described it as a “Jim Crow relic”. Jim Crow laws strengthened racial segregation in the southern states until 1965 and were used to relinquish the leadership of black people.
“If all this requires the elimination of the filibuster, another Jim Crow relic, in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then this is what we need to do,” he said.
- In the photo: John Lewis honored in the American capital
Obama strengthens pre-election rhetoric
With less than 100 days to go until the November presidential election, Barack Obama is sharpening his political rhetoric.
While he has not hesitated to offer covert criticism of Donald Trump in the past – in May he said the coronavirus “had finally broken the veil over the idea that so many of the people in charge know what they are doing” – his eulogy for John Lewis it was perhaps his most prominent political speech since the 2018 midterm congressional elections.
He drew a line from the divisive policy of Alabama Governor George Wallace in the 1960s to “attacks on democracy and what is best in America we are seeing circulating now.”
Some of what Mr. Obama said were new. Some were a response to previously announced positions. The former president, however, framed it all in terms of an ongoing battle for a “fuller, fairer, better America.”
For three and a half years, Mr. Trump has made a concerted effort to dismantle Mr. Obama’s presidential legacy – in health care, immigration, climate, foreign policy and more.
Mr Obama’s stance on Thursday suggests he knows he only has a few months to help deny his successor another four years to get the job done.
Giving tribute to Lewis, Mr. Obama said he had become the first black U.S. president because of the congressman’s fight for civil rights for black Americans.
Lewis, also a Democrat, did “everything he could to preserve this democracy, and as long as we breathe into our bodies, we must continue his cause,” Mr. Obama said.
The service was also attended by former presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Mr Bush, a Republican, said he had his “differences” with the late congressman, but “we live in a better and nobler country today because of John Lewis.”
“He believed in humanity and he believed in America,” he added. Bush.
During the civil rights movement, Lewis was one of the founders of the Nonviolent Student Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and later became its chairman from 1963 to 1966.
He co-organized and spoke in Mars in Washington for Labor and Freedom, the rally at which Dr. King delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech. Lewis was the last speaker to survive the march.