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Funeral Service for Civil Rights Icon, the Late Congressman John Lewis; Interview with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; Obama Subtly Compares Governor Wallace to Trump on Sending in Federal Troops. Aired 2:38-3p ET

Aired July 30, 2020 - 14:38   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: I'm John King, in Washington.

You're watching here the flag-covered casket of the late Congressman John Lewis about to be taken to his final resting place. This just outside one of the great religious and civil rights landmarks at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, after about a 3.5 hour moving funeral service in honor of the late Congressman, the civil rights icon.

The speakers included three former presidents of the United States, the speak of the House, members of the Lewis family, his deputy chief of staff in Washington, another living legend from the civil rights day. A 12-year-old young man Lewis met a few years ago who became a close friend of the next generation, if you will.

You see family and friends gathering outside the church right now.

Lewis was a partisan Democrat. And in the words of all three presidents, including the Republican president, George W. Bush, not once did the current President Donald Trump come up by name in this service.

But in the words of the former three presidents, somewhat veiled in the remarks of President Bushes and Clinton, but not at all in the words of President Obama, a direct challenge to those watching services today to carry on Lewis work for voting rights, for civil rights, for a more kind and just democracy.

President Obama going so far as to invoke the name of George Wallace. In talking about George Wallace may be gone, but then criticizing the use of federal forces, federal authorities in recent days against protesters in the United States of America.

Most of all, though, this is a tribute to a man who. starting in his 20s, was living history in the United States of America. A man who marched in the marches, who shed blood more than 40 times, went to jail, from the movement, became a politician, and in the Congress, continued those fights.

As we watch this moving scene in Atlanta, Georgia, I want to bring in my colleague, Victor Blackwell, who has been there throughout this very moving service, very moving tribute to the life and legacy of John Lewis.

And, Victor, as the many famous speakers, many unknown to us but close to John Lewis, people pay tribute inside, you were outside where there's onlookers as well from this remarkable moment.


VICTOR BLACKWELL, CNN HOST: Yes, John, there were more people outside than there were there were inside. The cap of 240 people because of the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing.

And there were a lot of amens and come ons, as we heard from the former presidents and those, the luminaries of the civil rights movement.

I can tell you, as we watch these pictures, the former Congressman will be heading to South View Cemetery for a private internment, where he will be laid to rest next to his wife of more than 40 years, Lillian Miles Lewis. And that will happen with just a few family members.

As we watched what was happening here for about 3.5 hours, this home going service, as it's known in the Baptist tradition, in black families, was as much a tribute to the late congressman as it was a call to action.

As we heard from former President Clinton, saying it's time to suit up. President Obama saying that you have to do something. You don't have to do what Congressman Lewis did, but you have to do something.

We heard the refrain of, do not give up, do not give in, keep the faith, and get into good trouble, from several of the people who spoke here as well.

We also talked about the arc of his life. Many people talking about starting as a young man, preaching to chickens in Troy, Alabama, and that voices resonating across this world, not just nationally.

We heard some condolences from the president of Ghana as well over the last several weeks.

But this is the day, the sixth day of tributes that stretched across Alabama and here in Atlanta, the district he represented for 17 terms.

Also in Washington, even seeing a very emotional, I would say, uncharacteristically emotional speaker, Nancy Pelosi, when paying tribute to her friend and the late congressman.

John, I'm going to send it back to you. It's starting to clear out as the ceremony has ended.

But we'll come back and have a broader discussion of what we've seen in the last 3.5 hours.

KING: Be back to you I just a moment. We hope you can speak to some of the special guests as they department that. As we wait for that, let me bring into the conversation, our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash, our political correspondent, Abbey Phillip, and our political commentator, Angela Rye.

Angela, let me start with you.

As someone who, when you worked in the Congress, you worked closely with John Lewis.

On this day, where people were paying tribute to his life and legacy, I think, as Victor just noted, the call to arms, the call to continue his work was the common thread throughout the speakers.

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It was. And, John, what I was most excited about was the fact that, in this particular ceremony, you know he's been memorialized all week. So much has been talked about.

The boy from Troy who used to preach to his chickens, who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but very rarely have we heard about John Lewis who made it across the bridge and the public servant he was when he got to the other side of the bridge.

The legislation he passed to ensure the National Museum for African- American History and Culture would come to fruition. The legislator who sat on protest after what happened at Pulse Night Club to ensure gun reform would have a vote in the House chamber.

The legislator who, of course, fought until his very end to ensure voting rights protections for all of us, who got to reside over the floor when the House passed H.R. 4, which is named the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act after a unanimous consent vote put up my majority vote by Congressman Clyburn.

So today, to see members of Congress I worked for and see him honored in such a way that paid tribute to the legacy held as a public servant was tremendous.

I want to acknowledge his staff. So often, staff are in the background and don't get much attention. And to see Jamila (ph) up there today talking about who he was. I thought our staff was special because we had lunch with Mr. Lewis every Wednesday. It turns out, he did that with everyone.

And so I'm so happy we could share that moment together.

KING: A great tribute, a personal tribute to take you inside the curtain, if you will, of how John Lewis was as a man and as a boss the office. It was very moving.

Stand by.

I want to go to Victor Blackwell, in Atlanta, who has a very special guest, who was inside the services.

BLACKWELL: John, I had to put on the mask here.

We have Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms who attended the service here at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

Mayor Bottoms, first, our condolences because we know this is a friend of yours. Often, sometimes, people attend because protocol dictates.


But what we heard from the leaders is this was personal. This was a personal connection to Congressman Lewis.

MAYOR KEISHA LANCE BOTTOMS (D-GA), ATLANTA: He was my congressman, but really all of our congressman. And for me, it's a long-standing family connection.

My aunt, Ruby Smith Doris Robinson, was the first executive secretary of SNCC. And she worked very closely with Congressman Lewis and he spoke of her so lovingly. He would ask about her son and tear up. And she died at 26, many years ago.

But for me, it really was symbolic of just who he was. Somebody who loved deeply, who cared deeply, and carried the movement. And those who are part of it so closely in his heart.

And so I love Congressman Lewis. Just to be able to share him with the rest of the world is scary. So very fitting to have this tribute and three presidents in attendance and the speaker and members of Congress and just to see the people show up.

And there were lines around the state capitol last night to just pay respect to him and just a wonderful man and a very fitting service for him.

BLACKWELL: There were hundreds outside as well. You'll see the pictures later this evening.

But John Lewis Freedom Parkway stretches across this part of Atlanta. There's a multistory mural of him. There aren't many members of Congress that have that honor.

But of course, he was more. What is the city of Atlanta losing by this loss of Congressman Lewis?

LANCE BOTTOMS: We're losing a friend. And for so many of us in Atlanta, Congressman Lewis is this larger-than-life icon. He is a person we would see in the grocery store and drugstore and who would stop and take pictures endlessly. And made everybody feel so much special.

So, for all of us, we're losing a corner stone of our community, but he loved so much with us. And that was for us to keep up the good fight and not grow weary and not be dismayed by all we see in this country but stand and fight and do it because it's the right thing to do.

And I am so full and so grateful for him. It is certainly a loss for our city. I was in high school when he was elected to Congress. It was the first congressional race that I watched intently. BLACKWELL: And I think it's important to highlight it's not just a

loss for the black community in Atlanta or across this country. Congressman Lewis walked and road and sometimes danced in Atlanta's Pride parades.

LANCE BOTTOMS: Yes, he did.

BLACKWELL: And an advocate for seniors as well and so many communities.

We talked a lot today about his contributions during the civil rights movement but so many communities relied on him to be an advocate.

LANCE BOTTOMS: Absolutely. I've joined him in riding along near him in the Pride parade and just to see the excitement when people would see him near and he remained relevant.

So many people rest on what they've done in the past. But he continued to push forward with human rights. And continued to be our conscience. He was the conscience of Congress.

And it is -- this is a tremendous loss for our city to have lost Congressman Lewis and C.T. Vivian on the same day and Joseph Lowry just a few months ago.

It's a passing of a generation that's going to -- that's deeply felt by our community.

BLACKWELL: So, what now? What is the tribute beyond the services to honor the congressman?

LANCE BOTTOMS: The tribute is to keep up the good fight. And I joked with the governor on yesterday at the state capitol, I said, when the good trouble continues, know that it has the blessings of Congressman Lewis.

It's what he left with us and I don't think it's a happenstance that

his last public appearance was at the Black Lives Matter mural in D.C. And the last time I saw him was on a Zoom call with President Obama with the Obama Foundation for My Brother's Keeper.


So, even until his last days, he was still not just talking the talk, but he was walking the walk, literally. And that's what he leaves with us. As long as you've got fight in you, keep up the good fight.

BLACKWELL: And of course, that was that letter published in the "New York Times" today. The first line saying, you inspired me, and that inspired people to continue the work that he started.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, thank you so much. Again, our condolences. We know this was more than a political colleague. This was a friend as well. Thank you so much for your time.

LANCE BOTTOMS: Thank you for honoring him with your coverage.

BLACKWELL: Certainly, certainly.

John, it is in the mid to high 80s and humidity is thick. It is no small thing that you had hundreds of people come to Ebenezer, as close as they could, to pay honor to Congressman Lewis. They could have watched this at home, as so many did.

But I spoke with some people in the crowd, John, who said, I wouldn't be anywhere else. He was a part of Atlanta. I only lived here eight years, and he's one of those figures that you expect to always be here, irrespective of age.

And this is a loss certainly felt as we watch the motorcade soon head to South View Cemetery where he will be interned -- John?

KING: Victor, thank you so much.

And thank the mayor as well.

You're right. People wanting to get a glimpse of this moment of history at a very special place as we say farewell to a very special man.

I want to continue the conversation. Dana Bash and Abby Phillips still with me.

On days like this, we try to set politics aside. Be honest, John Lewis, in addition to being a civil rights hero, American icon and kind and gentle man, he also could be, when he thought it the right thing, to be a fierce partisan.

And in the eulogy today, President Obama urging continuing the work.

And unmistakable, Dana, what President Obama was doing when he said this, going back to when John Lewis crossed that bridge, and George Wallace, then governor of Alabama, sent in the state troopers.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators.


OBAMA: We may no longer have to guess the number of Jellybeans in a jar in order to cast a ballot, but even as we sit here, there those in power who are doing their darndest to discourage people from voting.


KING: Pretty clear, pretty blunt. We are 14 weeks from a presidential election. And President Obama, I'm assuming, with the full blessing of his now departed friend of John Lewis, now wanted to make a point. DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Those in power could have been the man in power, you know. There was no subtlety to what President Obama was saying.

And he said, as we sit here. He was referring to the fact that the current president, who is notably absent, while the three living presidents physically able to go did go to John Lewis's funeral.

The current president tweeted this morning something that is baffling. His Republican colleagues more than anything else he's done recently, which is to say, maybe the election should be moved as part of his ongoing assault on mail-in voting, on the notion of this election being rigged and everything else that he has been saying.

So that was clearly an allusion to what President Trump is doing now, never mind the broader trouble people are having across the board voting, particularly since the Supreme Court struck down a big part of the very Voting Rights Act that John Lewis gave his blood to get done back in 1965.

And one other thing I want to point out is that President Obama was understandably -- you look at the politics of right now -- partisan in that moment.

Another president, George W. Bush, was more subtle, but, boy, was it clear when he said, John, listen, John and I had our disagreements, of course, but the America John Lewis fought for and the America I believe in, in differences of opinion are inevitable evidence of democracy in action.


BASH: That was very clear what he was saying there.

KING: Yes, it was.

Former President Bush celebrating the diversity of debate in the country, saying it should be a richness. The current president using it differently as we see.

Abby Phillip, you can see from this moment, John Lewis's allies will use this as a rallying cry for voting in November, for continuing his work, to push for registration, push for participation, push against efforts, as we see, to fight against the president of the United States and others, to fight against mail-in and other voting in the age of COVID.


John Lewis's final words published this morning at his direction saying, "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 in. In my life, I have done all I can in the way of peace, the way of peace and non-violence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring."

We say good-bye to an American hero today but the echoes of the campaign before us, John Lewis will be very much of part it.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I think, especially in the final moments, as we saw his casket leaving the church, and "We Shall Overcome" was playing in the background, marked this generation of American heroes, the end of American heroes like John Lewis.

And people pointed out and people told me that you cannot separate his fight for voting rights from what he did on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

A lot of people are turned off by this idea you can sort of, in their words, whitewash John Lewis's legacy and praise his heroism without praising the thing he was marching for, which was the right of black people to be able to vote in Alabama. So it is no surprise that that comes up here.

But the question is whether it is a political statement. I think it has become political, certainly in these recent years.

But one of the speakers pointed out, every renewal of the Voting Rights Act was signed by a Republican president, including by George W. Bush, who was in the audience today. So it is -- it has become a political thing.

It does not have to be a political thing. And to heard also President Obama going there in his speech. This is not new for President Obama. It took me back to his eulogy for the reverend after the Charleston shooting in which he went there on some of these tough issues.

He often uses these eulogies to do that very thing, which is to say, you cannot separate the life of the person from the moment that we are in, that that is what Obama was doing in that moment.

And I think that it was not a mistake that he used some of his toughest language even against the filibuster. John, as you heard him say, he called it a Jim Crow-era rule he wants to see gone.

KING: We see less of the former president, all of the former presidents, particularly President Obama. When he does speak, he chooses his words deliberately.

Abby Phillip, Dana Bash, Angela Rye, Victor Blackwell, in Atlanta, thank you all for being with us on this special day. It's been an honor to be with you the last few hours.

A quick break and then Brianna Keilar picks up our coverage.

Have a good afternoon.