Rep. John Lewis Senate Testimony in Sen. Sessions Confirmation Hearing
Remarks as delivered:
Chairman Grassley, Senator Leahy, and members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to testify today. Millions of Americans are encouraged by our country's efforts to create a more inclusive democracy during the last 50 years, or what some of us call the Beloved Community, a community at peace with itself. They are not a minority. A clear majority of Americans say they want this to be a fair, just, and open nation. They are afraid this country is headed in the wrong direction. They are concerned that some leaders reject decades of progress and want to return to the dark past, when the power of law was used to deny the freedoms protected by the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and its Amendments. These are the voices I represent today.
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' 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.
I was born in rural Alabama -- not very far from where Senator Sessions was raised. There was no way to escape or deny the choke hold of discrimination and racial hate that surrounded us. I saw the sings 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.
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, non-violent 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 non-violent 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.
We have come a distance. We have made progress, but we are not there yet. There are forces that want to take us back to another place. We don't want to go back. We want to go forward. As the late A. Phillip Randolph, who was the dean of the March on Washington in 1963 often said, " our foremothers and forefathers all came to this land in distant ships, but we're all in the same boat now."
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 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. I ran out of time. Thank for giving me a chance to testify.
(Below is the rest of Rep. Lewis's statement as written. Longer remarks were also submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee record and can be requested)
I want to make it crystal clear for the record -- we have made a lot of progress, but we are not there yet. Some people argue that the 48 years of a fully-operational Voting Rights Act simply erased hundreds of years of hate and violence.
This is not ancient history; the scars and stains of racism are still deeply embedded in our society. This is proven by the thousands of pages of evidence submitted to Congress which verify continued voting rights discrimination across our nation and in the Deep South.
Representing Alabama on this Committee, Senator Sessions had an opportunity to lead. Instead, the Senator turned a blind eye to the persistent and consistent efforts to make it harder and more difficult for minorities, the poor, the elderly, and others to exercise the right to vote.
I spent most of my life living and working in the South. For many years, I worked hard and long to protect the Voting Rights Act. Not once have I heard the Senator recognize the present-day, recorded, voting discrimination which is why Alabama continued to be covered by the preclearance formula.
After the Shelby v. Holder decision, minorities were in mourning as Senator Sessions was celebrating. He declared the decision was "good news for the South". Alabama and other States immediately adopted voter ID legislation -- making it harder for minorities to execute their right to vote. We must face the truth. We are a multi-racial, multi-ethnic country. We cannot escape this reality. As we prepared for the March on Washington, the late A. Philip Randolph said, “Maybe our forefathers and foremothers came to this country in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now.”
You see, the issue of discrimination cannot be swept into a corner or under a rug. It is still here. And we cannot avoid the fact that there is a systematic, deliberate attempt to destroy the advances of civil rights in this country and take us back to a period when America declared its greatness on one hand, but fostered the worst kind of racial discrimination on the other.
As a fellow Southerner, I have no doubt that Senator Sessions is polite to all he meets. My concern is not about how nice he is. My concern is about where he will take the Department of Justice and whether he will respect the dignity and worth of every, single person in our country – regardless of race, color, or background.
No one, but no one should be discriminated against because of their race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, or national origin. So today, I ask the Members of this Committee to think long and hard about what it would mean for an outspoken opponent of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Violence Against Women Act to serve as the chief law enforcement official in our land?
It will take more than a photo on a bridge in Selma or a medal ceremony in the Capitol. It will take hard work and commitment from the heart and soul. How will Mr. Sessions confront the challenges of protest in a nation? Will he use the law as a shield? Will he use the law to silence the voices of those who are different and disagree with the status quo?
The Attorney General is expected to be a champion of justice for all people – not just the rich and the powerful. This person has the duty and responsibility to fight to ensure that every person – White, African American, Latino, Asian, or Native American – can participate in the democratic process. That every person will be equally protected under the law.
It is not the law that is sacred above all, but the spark of the divine that is the essence of every human being. Justice is the impact of law, not the law itself. Senator Sessions will be called upon to uphold justice, not to use the law as a cover to pursue a political agenda based on suspicion and contempt of certain Americans.
In closing, I ask the members of this Committee to consider the same question that Senator Sessions posed to many witnesses who went through this very same confirmation process. Will his background, will his sympathies, and will his prejudices impact his service to our nation?
My friends, I do not envy you. Leadership is not easy. You are expected to make tough decisions – to do what is right, what is just, and what is fair for all the people of this nation who rely on you to speak up and speak out on their behalf.