Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, has used two days of confirmation hearings to try to ease concerns about his views on race and civil rights. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), one of the last surviving icons of the civil rights movement, just did his best to reignite them.
Lewis’s testimony urging lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote against Sessions underscores the power that comes from being an eyewitness to history — and highlights how much is being lost as the leaders in the long fight for equal rights die off.
Sessions first appeared before the committee in 1986, when Ronald Reagan nominated him for a seat on the federal judiciary. At the time of those hearings, only 20-some years had passed since the violent struggle that produced the Voting Rights Act. That meant the men considering Sessions’s nomination had been, at the very least, witnesses to the painful birth of the American civil rights movement. They remembered, too, just how unlikely it once felt that the arc of justice could begin to bend. They rejected Sessions for that judgeship based on what they saw as a history of racial insensitivity.
For two days, the Democrats have danced around that legacy. This afternoon, Lewis addressed it head on:
We can pretend that the law is blind. We can pretend that it is even-handed. But if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we are called upon daily by the people we represent to help them deal with unfairness in how the law is written and enforced. Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Sen. Sessions’s call for “law and order” will mean today what it meant in Alabama, when I was coming up back then. The rule of law was used to violate the human and civil rights of the poor, the dispossessed, people of color.
A civil rights hero, Lewis was born in rural Alabama, “not very far from where Sen. Sessions was raised,” he said Wednesday, without needing to note that to be a black man in 1940, born to a sharecropper’s family, meant he faced a very different future from Sessions. Inspired by the boycotts and the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lewis became active early on in the civil rights movement.
As he spoke to the committee, Lewis began intoning the things he himself had seen as a child, and a young man:
I saw the signs that said White Waiting, Colored Waiting. I saw the signs that said White Men, Colored Men, White Women, Colored Women. I tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and racial discrimination.
Segregation was the law of the land that ordered our society in the Deep South. Any black person who did not cross the street when a white person walked down the same sidewalk, who did not move to the back of the bus, who drank from a white water fountain, who looked a white person directly in their eyes could be arrested and taken to jail.
Lewis then offered a short history lesson about how, and why, he and others adopted a policy of nonviolent civil disobedience:
The forces of law and order in Alabama were so strong that to take a stand against this injustice, we had to be willing to sacrifice our lives for our cause. Often, the only way we could demonstrate that a law on the books violated a higher law was by challenging that law, by putting our bodies on the line and showing the world the unholy price we had to pay for dignity and respect.
It took massive, well-organized, nonviolent dissent for the Voting Rights Act to become law. It required criticism of this great nation and its laws to move toward a greater sense of equality in America. We had to sit in. We had to stand in. We had to march. And that’s why more than 50 years ago, a group of unarmed citizens, black and white, gathered on March 7, 1965, in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion to walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to dramatize to the nation and to the world that we wanted to register to vote, wanted to become participants in the democratic process.
We were beaten, tear-gassed, left bloody, some of us unconscious. Some of us had concussions. Some of us almost died on that bridge. But the Congress responded, President Lyndon Johnson responded, and the Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, and it was signed into law on August 6, 1965.
After two days of Republicans genially congratulating their colleague on his nomination, Lewis bitingly argued that what mattered was Sessions’s views, not his personality:
It doesn’t matter whether Sen. Sessions may smile or how friendly he may be, whether he may speak to you. We need someone who will stand up and speak up and speak out for the people who need help, for people who are being discriminated against. And it doesn’t matter whether they are black or white, Latino, Asian, or Native American, whether they are straight or gay, Muslim, Christian, or Jew. We all live in the same house, the American house. We need someone as attorney general who is going to look out for all of us, not just some of us.
Watch Lewis’s testimony here.