Hundreds of mourners gathered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, to bid farewell to civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis. The Democratic Congressman from Georgia served in the House of Representatives from 1987 until his death on July 17 after a long battle against cancer.
The service began at 11 a.m. ET as more than 500 churches around the country rang their bells 80 times, marking each year of Lewis' life. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both spoke during the service, while former President Barack Obama will deliver the eulogy.
Tybre Faw, a 12-year-old boy who John Lewis befriended two years ago after meeting him outside of a church in Selma, Alabama, read the late-congressman's favorite poem, Invictus.
"John Lewis was my hero and my friend. Let's honor him by getting into good trouble," Faw said after he finished reading the poem.
President Bush praised Lewis for selflessly fighting to build a better world for his entire life.
"He’s been called an American saint, a believer willing to give up everything, even life itself, to bear witness to the truth that drove him all his life: that we could build a world of peace and justice, harmony and dignity and love."
Bush said that while they disagreed on many things over the years, it was proof that American democracy was working.
"John and I had our disagreements, of course. But in the America John Lewis fought for and the America I believe in, differences of opinion are inevitable elements and evidence of democracy in action," Bush said.
President Clinton praised Lewis for his "uncanny ability to heal troubled waters."
"He got into a lot of good trouble along the way, but let's not forget he also developed an absolutely uncanny ability to heal troubled waters," Clinton said. "When he could have been angry and determined to cancel his adversaries, he tried to get converts instead. He thought the open hand was better than the clenched fist."
President Obama said that Americans "owe a great debt to John Lewis and his forceful vision of freedom."
"John Lewis, first of the Freedom Riders, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, youngest speaker at the March on Washington, leader of the march from Selma to Montgomery, member of Congress representing the people of this state and this district for 33 years, mentor to young people — including me, at the time," Obama said.
"Until his final day on this Earth, he not only embraced that responsibility but he made it his life's work," Obama added.
Lewis was one of the "Big Six" leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. He helped organize the March on Washington in 1963 and was the youngest speaker at the event. In 1965, when he was 25 years old, Lewis led the "Bloody Sunday" march from Selma to Montgomery with Hosea Williams. He was attacked by a state trooper after crossing the Edmund Bridge and suffered a fractured skull.
Earlier in the week, his casket was carried over the bridge in a horse-drawn caisson.
Lewis was arrested at least 45 times during the civil rights movement and even found himself in police custody during his time in Congress. His most recent arrest came in 2013 when he was protesting for immigration reform.
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