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'Exceptional' civil rights icon John Lewis remembered at Atlanta funeral

John Lewis was celebrated as an American hero during his funeral Thursday as former President Barack Obama and others called on people to follow Lewis' example and fight injustice.

3 former presidents among those who pay tribute to longtime congressman at Ebenezer Baptist Church

'America was built by John Lewises,' said former U.S. president Barack Obama in a eulogy that praised the U.S. congressman and civil rights icon for his help in pushing the country toward its 'highest ideals.' 2:09

John Lewis was celebrated as an American hero during his funeral Thursday as former President Barack Obama and others called on people to follow Lewis' example and fight injustice.

Three former U.S. presidents joined in the eulogies after nearly a week of mourning that took Lewis from his birthplace in Alabama to the nation's capital of Washington to his final resting place in his home of Atlanta.

"I've come here today because I, like so many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom," former president Barack Obama said.

Lewis died July 17 at age 80.

The arc of Lewis's legacy of activism will once again be tied to Ebenezer's former pastor Martin Luther King Jr., whose sermons Lewis discovered while scanning the radio dial as a 15-year-old boy growing up in then-segregated Alabama.

King continued to inspire Lewis's civil rights work for the next 65 years as he fought segregation during sometimes bloody marches, Greyhound bus "Freedom Rides" across the South and later during his long tenure in the United States Congress.

WATCH | Scenes from the Lewis funeral:

Jennifer Holliday touches mourners with 'Only What You Do for Christ Will Last' as former U.S. congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis is laid to rest. 0:50

"The life of John Lewis was in so many ways, exceptional," said Obama. "He vindicated the faith in our founding and redeemed that faith."

"America was built by John Lewises," he said.

Obama then drew a thread from Lewis's activism over the right of Blacks to vote to what he characterized as current efforts to suppress the vote.

"There are those in power that are doing their darnedest to discourage people from voting, closing polling places, attacking our voting rights with surgical precision, even undermining the postal service in an election that's going to depend on mail-in ballots," the 44th president said to thunderous applause.

Former President Barack Obama delivers a eulogy for John Lewis during the services at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)

Former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton spoke before Obama.

"He always believed in preaching the gospel in word and in deed, insisting that hate and fear had to be answered with love and hope," said Bush.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms were among those in attendance.

Pelosi, her voice breaking at times, recalled a poignant moment when Lewis's body was lying in state at the U.S. Capitol earlier this week.

"There was this double rainbow over the casket," she said. "He was telling us, 'I'm home in heaven, I'm home in heaven.' We always knew he worked on the side of angels, and now he is with them."

One of King's daughters, the Rev. Bernice King, led the congregation in prayer: "We will continue to get into good trouble as long as you grant us the breath to do so," she said.

Outside Ebenezer, hundreds gathered to watch the service on a large screen outside the church. Some sang the gospel song We Shall Overcome.

Mourners stand outside Ebenezer Baptist Church during the funeral for Rep. John Lewis on Thursday in Atlanta. (Brynn Anderson/The Associated PRess)

"Here lies a true American patriot who risked his life for the hope and promise of democracy," Ebenezer's senior pastor, the Rev. Raphael Warnock, told the congregation as the funeral began.

When Lewis was 15, he heard King's sermons on WRMA, a radio station in Montgomery, Ala., he recalled in an interview for the Southern Oral History Program.

"Later I saw him on many occasions in Nashville while I was in school between 1958 and '61," Lewis said. "In a sense, he was my leader."

King was "the person who, more than any other, continued to influence my life, who made me who I was," Lewis wrote in his 1998 autobiography, Walking with the Wind.

By the summer of 1963, Lewis was addressing thousands of people during the March on Washington, speaking shortly before King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. He spoke then about Black people beaten by police and jailed — themes that resonate vividly in today's times.

"My friends, let us not forget that we are involved in a serious social revolution," Lewis told the huge crowd on the Washington Mall.

"To those who have said, 'Be patient and wait,' we have long said that we cannot be patient," he said. "We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again."

In 1965, Lewis was beaten by Alabama state troopers in the city of Selma in what became known as Bloody Sunday.

Lewis op-ed published today in New York Times

Last Sunday, his casket was carried across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. The wagon rolled over a carpet of rose petals on the bridge that spans the Alabama River.

On the south side of the bridge, where Lewis was attacked by the officers, family members placed red roses that the carriage rolled over, marking the spot where Lewis spilled his blood and suffered a head injury.

Martin Luther King III is seen Wednesday at the state capitol in Atlanta, where Lewis lay in repose. (Brynn Anderson/The Associated Press)

Lewis was later awarded the Medal of Freedom by the nation's first Black president in 2011.

He spent more than three decades in Congress, and his district included most of Atlanta.

Lewis was a member of Ebenezer, and "it was my honour to serve as pastor to John Lewis, a man of faith and a true American patriot who selflessly risked life and limb in the sacred cause of truth-telling and justice-making in the world," Warnock said in a statement before the funeral.

"He was wounded for America's transgressions, crushed for our iniquities and by his bruises we are healed," Warnock went on. "Today we weep. Tomorrow we continue the work of healing that was his life's work."

WATCH | The life and legacy of John Lewis:

U.S. Rep. John Lewis was the last survivor of the Big Six civil rights activists who organized the 1963 March on Washington. 7:17

Shortly before he died, Lewis wrote an essay for The New York Times and asked that it be published on the day of his funeral. In the piece published Thursday, Lewis recalled the teachings of King:

"He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice," Lewis wrote. "He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out."

"Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe," he wrote.

"In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring."

"He was here on a mission bigger than personal ambition," Clinton told the congregants, referencing the Times essay in his remarks: "It is so fitting on the day of his service, he leaves us his marching orders: Keep moving."

With files from CBC News

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