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Obama Calls For Abolishing Filibuster If It Stands In Way Of Stronger Voting Rights

Updated at 6:23 p.m. ET

Former President Barack Obama called on Americans to honor the late civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis by working to expand voting rights — and if Congress has to abolish the filibuster to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, then so be it, Obama said.

"You want to honor John? Let's honor him by revitalizing the law that he was willing to die for," Obama said as he gave a eulogy Thursday for Lewis during services at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

As he delivered a passionate speechabout Lewis' impact on American society and politics, Obama reeled off a list of suggestions for improving civil rights, democracy and voter participation in the United States.

"Naming it the John Lewis Voting Rights Act — that is a fine tribute," Obama said. "But John wouldn't want us to stop there."

The next steps, Obama said, should be "making sure every American is automatically registered to vote – including former inmates who've earned their second chance — by adding polling places and expanding early voting, and making Election Day a national holiday."

Obama also called for full representation for millions of U.S. citizens who live in Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. — a territory and district, respectively, whose residents lack voting representation in the federal government.

"They're Americans," Obama said.

The former president also called for an end to "some of the partisan gerrymandering, so that all voters have the power to choose their politicians, not the other way around."

"And if all this takes eliminating the filibuster — another Jim Crow relic — in order to secure the God-given rights of every American, then that's what we should do," Obama said.

The Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965, and it has been a crucial tool in dismantling racist state laws that targeted Black voters. But in 2013, the Supreme Court invalidated a core portion of the law – a requirement that states with a history of discriminatory voting laws must first get approval from the federal government before they can change their voting rules.

"Today the Supreme Court stuck a dagger in the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965," Lewis said of the court's ruling at the time.

"They're saying in effect that history cannot repeat itself, but I say come and walk in my shoes."

In response to Obama's remarks Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's campaign echoed the former president's call to strengthen the law.

"Congressional Republicans should turn their praise of Rep. Lewis into action and pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act today by voice vote. No filibuster, no delay," Andrew Bates, director of rapid response for Biden, told NPR's Scott Detrow.

Obama also urged Americans to value and exercise their right to vote, calling cynicism "the central strategy of voter suppression."

Months of street protests against racial injustice in the U.S. have made him hopeful for the future, Obama said. But he added that people must vote to secure lasting change.

"We're also going to have to remember what John said," Obama said. "If you don't do everything you can do to change things, then they will remain the same. You only pass this way once — you have to give it all you have."

Citing another civil rights legend, the former president said:

"By the thousands, faceless, anonymous, relentless young people, black and white, have taken our whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."

"Dr. King said that in the 1960s," Obama said, standing in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s former church. "And it came true again this summer."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.