Barack Obama used his eulogy at the funeral for Rep. John Lewis on Thursday to compare President Trump’s sending of federal officers to quash protests in Portland, Oregon, to the tactics of segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace, who sent state troopers to violently break up peaceful civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s.
Lewis, a civil rights icon who died on July 17 at age 80, was beaten to near death in Selma by Alabama troopers authorized by Wallace to stop a historic march for voting rights on March 7, 1965, in what came to be known as Bloody Sunday.
Speaking at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Obama also compared the current use of force by police against Black people to the racist actions of Bull Connor, Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety in the 1960s, who was known for using fire hoses and police dog attacks against civil rights activists in Alabama.
“Bull Conner may be gone, but today, we witness with our own eyes police officers kneeling on the necks of black Americans,” Obama said, referring to the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
“George Wallace may be gone, but we can witness our federal government sending agents to use tear gas and batons against peaceful demonstrators,” he said.
Wallace, a Democratic politician and the 44th governor of Alabama, was a staunch segregationist who, as Lewis wrote in a 1998 New York Times opinion piece, “fought the civil rights movement with every fiber of his being.”
“He was a demagogue whose words and actions created a climate that allowed for violent reprisals against those seeking to end racial discrimination,” Lewis wrote.
In March 1965, civil rights leaders, including Lewis, planned to lead a 54-mile march of around 600 activists from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery to protest a Black man’s fatal shooting by troopers and to demand full voting rights for Black Americans.
Wallace, citing concerns of traffic flow, ordered state troopers “to use whatever measures are necessary to prevent” the march.
“Such a march cannot and will not be tolerated,” Wallace said during a press conference at the time, according to a newspaper clipping from the Los Angeles Times.
Cameras captured state police violently breaking up the demonstration, using tear gas and clubs to beat up hundreds of marchers. Lewis, who said that he nearly died that day, suffered a fractured skill, among other injuries.
In Portland, dozens of widely-shared videos have captured federal officers quashing what had been largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protests by using tear gas, less-than-lethal munitions, and batons.
Trump has repeatedly described protesters in Portland as “anarchists and agitators” and emphasized the need for federal troops to “protect” federal property in the city.
But the Trump administration agreed on Thursday to begin withdrawing federal officers from Portland as long as Oregon authorities take steps to protect federal buildings.
In the 1998 Times piece, Lewis wrote that when he met Wallace in 1979, he was a “changed man” who acknowledged his bigotry and “wanted to be forgiven”
In a final opinion piece Lewis wrote for the New York Times prior to his death that was published Thursday to coincide with his funeral, the late Democratic lawmaker compared Black Lives Matter to the civil rights movement of his era.
“When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century,” he wrote, “let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression, and war.”