ATLANTA (CBS46)-- Congressman John Lewis was so admired, the nation paused for six days to honor his legacy. His message of perseverance and justice was echoed by a president who stood on his shoulders at his final celebration of life.
"I, like many Americans, owe a great debt to John Lewis and his vision of freedom," former president Barack Obama said in his eulogy of Lewis from the podium of Atlanta's historic Ebenezer Baptist Church.
He spoke of Lewis' humble beginnings. Lewis grew up in rural Troy, Alabama, as the son of sharecroppers. Obama explained Lewis' upbringing in the segregated south, listening behind closed doors as his parents discussed the Ku Klux Klan. As he got older, Lewis would pay attention to the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his radio, summoning him to a movement he would later join.
"John Lewis was getting something inside his head. An idea that he couldn't shake, took hold of him that non violent resistance, civil disobedience would change laws, but also change hearts, change lives, change nations, change the world," said Obama.
Lewis would become a close friend of King, and together they would stand up to oppressive segregation laws. From the lunch counters of Nashville, to the busses of Mississippi, to the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, President Obama acknowledged the sacrifices Lewis made to help further progress for black Americans.
"John got a taste of jail for the first, second, third... well, several times. But he also got a taste of victory and it filled him with a sense of righteous purpose," said Obama. He added, "John Lewis will be a founding father of that fuller, fairer, better America."
The president forged his own personal connection with the late congressman. He explained they first met when Obama was a law student, then again when he was first voted to the U.S. Senate. From there, they built a friendship through Obama's journey to the White House.
"On inauguration day 2009, he was one of the first people I greeted and hugged on that stand. And I told him, 'this is your day, too," he recalled.
It was through many tests of faith that Lewis helped black Americans like President Obama. Now, Obama says, it is the country's turn to carry the torch. "He said as long as he had breath in his body he would preserve democracy and as long as we have breath in our bodies we must continue his cause."