WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. John Lewis on Wednesday gave a searing speech against U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions’ nomination to become Donald Trump’s attorney general.
Here are his full remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee:
“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.”