Representative John Lewis (D-GA), a longtime civil rights hero and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was relegated to a second-to-last speaking position in the hearing on Senator Jeff Sessions' nomination for Attorney General. But rather than marginalize his words, the committee actually handed Lewis the opportunity to make a closing argument. And what an argument it was.
In an unprecedented move, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) testified before the Senate Judiciary committee at the Attorney General nomination hearing for Senator Jeff Sessions. These members were relegated by the committee's schedule to the final hours of the last day of the hearings.
The final slot was filled by CBC Chair Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), who used part of his time to comment on the disrespect shown to Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ): "To have a senator, a House member, and a living civil rights legend testify at the end of all of this is the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus."
But if the Senate GOP's intent was to make sure no one heard them, saving the CBC for last was a bad idea. What happened instead was handing civil rights activist and long time Congressman Lewis the opportunity to make a powerful closing argument.
Lewis pulled no punches, starting right off by saying: "We can pretend 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."
(Full transcript is here.)
Though both Lewis and Sessions were raised in rural Alabama, not too distant from one another in geography, their experiences are light years apart, in terms of substance and ideology. While Lewis risked his life during the march on Selma, just to ensure the right "to register to vote and participate in the democratic process," Sessions benefited from the system that denied Lewis and other Black Americans their fundamental constitutional rights.
And while President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in spite of the political consequences, Sessions chose to unsuccessfully charge civil rights leaders with voter fraud (including a prominent local civil rights leader who helped organize and was bludgeoned during the Selma march) instead of protecting Black Americans against voter suppression, the real and widespread threat to the Constitution.
As detailed in a recent Shareblue article, Sessions’ actual record on civil rights is the opposite of the whitewashed profile presented during this week’s Senate hearings.
Sessions has both benefited from and tried to maintain, as best he could, the unequal administration of justice. He has risked nothing, conceded nothing, and changed nothing. He has been dragged along the arc of history; he has done nothing to bend it.
And he has maintained ties to white supremacist groups to this day. No matter how many of the small circle of Black conservatives he is able to wrangle into speaking on his behalf as a purportedly changed man, their words of support fade to mist in the groundswell of overwhelming, passionate voices of protest and evidence of his longstanding actions to the contrary.
As Lewis said so well:
It doesn't matter how Sen. Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you. But we need someone who is gonna stand up, speak up, and speak out for the people that need help, for people being discriminated against. And it doesn't matter whether they are black or white, Latino, Asian American, or Native American, whether they are straight or gay, Muslim, Christian, or Jews. We all live in the same house, the American house. We need someone as attorney general who is going to look for all of us, not just some of us.
Thank the heavens for John Lewis.