On January 11, Senator Cory A. Booker (D-NJ) and Representative John Lewis (D-GA) testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) for U.S. attorney general.
Both were assigned to a panel at the very end of the hearing process, a slot fellow panelist Representative Cedric L. Richmond (D-LA), the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, called “the equivalent of being made to go to the back of the bus.”
Both spoke out
Several Senate committee members who have publically supported Sessions left before Booker’s and Lewis’s important testimony began. But that didn’t deter them from speaking out against the threat they see to the civil rights progress our nation has made if Sessions becomes attorney general.
Lewis noted that he was born in rural Alabama too, not far from where Sessions grew up, but as a Black child he inherited a far different society: “There was no way to escape or deny the chokehold of discrimination and racial hate that surrounded us.”
He said, “A clear majority of Americans say they want this to be a fair, just, and open nation…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.
‘Law and order’
“Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Senator Sessions’ call for ‘law and order’ will mean today what it meant in Alabama…The rule of law was used to violate the human and civil rights of the poor, the dispossessed, people of color.”
In additional written remarks, Congressman Lewis was even clearer: “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.
“…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…after the Shelby v. Holder decision [the 2013 Supreme Court decision striking down key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act], 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 are a multi-racial, multi-ethnic country…[a]nd 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.”
Booker took the courageous step of being the first sitting senator to testify against the confirmation of another senator.
‘Justice for all’
In his prepared remarks, he said, “I want an attorney general who is committed to supporting law enforcement and securing law and order. But that is not enough. America was founded heralding not law and order, but justice for all. And critical to that is equal justice under the law. Law and order without justice is unobtainable…”
Booker added: “His record indicates that as attorney general, he would obstruct the growing national bipartisan movement toward criminal justice reform…(W)e cannot count on him to support state and national efforts toward bringing justice to a justice system that people on both sides of the aisle readily admit is biased against the poor, drug addicted, mentally ill, and people of color.
“His record indicates that at a time when even the FBI director is speaking out about implicit racial bias in policing and the need to address it; at a time when the last two attorneys general have taken steps to fix our broken criminal justice system; and at a time when the Justice Department he would lead has uncovered systemic abuses in police departments all over the United States including Ferguson, including Newark; Senator Sessions would not continue to lead urgently needed change…
‘Bend’ the arc
“Challenges of race in America cannot be addressed if we refuse to confront them. Persistent biases cannot be defeated unless we combat them. The arc of the universe does not just naturally curve toward justice – we must bend it.”
I’m deeply grateful to Senator Booker and Congressman Lewis for their extraordinary testimony and moral leadership. As we celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, we all should find the courage to honor him by standing up for what is right to stop a senator who has fought against racial justice over a lifetime from becoming the nation’s chief law enforcement voice.
That’s like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund (www.childrensdefense.org).