You could hear the fear in both of their voices. It was as if Jim Crow had been resurrected and was now being appointed to one of the highest positions in the land.
In staunch opposition, Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. John Lewis made it very clear that Sen. Jeff Sessions was not the man for the job of law in order in a country that is so deeply divided on race, gender, and the inclusion of rights of all its citizens.
In a break from tradition, Booker became the first sitting Senator to testify against a colleague in hearings to become the U.S. Attorney General. Despite the controversy, Booker said early in his testimony that he had a choice between standing in “Senate norms” versus “what his conscience says is best for the country,” and how he will always choose what is best for the country.
Booker took a passionate, yet pleasant tone throughout his testimony as he made his case against Sessions with conviction and the facts. He started out discussing how this was not about him not liking Sessions and how in the past they have worked well together, but this was about race, gender, sex, ethnicity, and his fear that the Alabama congressman cannot serve as the leading figure of law and order effectively and fairly.
At the top of his list was criminal justice reform and the crisis of mass incarceration. Booker stated how Sessions wouldn’t be open to criminal justice reform even though the data and former directors have said that we need this change. “Equal justice under the law. Law and order without justice is unattainable,” he said. “If there is no justice, there is no peace.”
Booker talked about our rough past, “the marchers in Alabama” and their pursuit of justice, fighting against discrimination and the fight for those who are most marginalized, while also making it aware that he understood the urgency of also having rule of law.
He described how the Civil Rights Act of 1957 gave the attorney general the duty to pursue civil rights, but questioned if Sessions would be willing to do this. “Senator Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requirement of the job – to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights, and justice for all.”
Citing his controversial record on several major civil rights issues he reinforced how his record does not show qualification for the job. Justice for women? LGBTQ? Voting rights? Immigrants? Each followed by the statement “his record won’t reflect it.”
Booker finished his testimony by reminding us all about how much is at stake in a country with so much turmoil after a vicious election. How the challenges of race in America cannot be addressed if we refuse to confront them. That the “arc” does not lean towards justice for all and how someone is needed who is willing to bend the arc.
Rep. Lewis took what Booker had said and put a face to it. His own. Lewis started out heavy, reminding us of the “dark days” of our past, and how people fear we will return to the days when “The power of law were used to deny the freedoms protected by the constitution, the bill of rights, and the amendments.”
Lewis brought into question whether Sessions believed that calls for “law and order” today to mean today what it meant in Alabama decades ago. How he and Sessions grew up in the same area, but lived two very different lives. Rule of law was used against people of color and there was “no way to escape” the discrimination of the past. He remembered segregation, and how he saw the “White” vs “Black” sections of just about everything in the south. That law and order meant Blacks could go to jail for looking at someone wrong, not moving to give up a seat on the bus or free up the sidewalk.
Lewis testimony touched on the heartstrings of a past filled with blood, pain, death and tears for a better tomorrow. He spoke of the “unholy price we paid for dignity and respect by putting our bodies on the line to receive the basic human rights we deserved” describing how they had to “sit in,” “stand in,” and “march.” He then talked about the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march and how demonstrators were beaten, gassed, and almost died on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
He summed his testimony by quoting A. Phillip Randolph, who headed the March on Washington 1963. Maybe “our foremothers and forefathers” came in different ships, but we are all in the same boat now.”
The two statesmen conveyed the fears that many of us are feeling. The last eight years have been about hope, optimism, and change, yet America is at the footsteps of setting the clock back on rights and becoming the hateful, segregated nation it has been, and in many ways still is.
The road ahead certainly does not look easy, and with Sessions at the helm, we may again be marching from Selma to Montgomery very soon.
George M. Johnson is an activist and writer based in the Washington, D.C. area. He writes the topics of health, race, gender, sex, and education. Follow him on Twitter: @iamgmjohnson.