Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights icon who has been at the forefront of civil rights struggles, spoke poignantly about his own experience with racism Wednesday during a congressional hearing to confirm Sen. Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump‘s pick for attorney general.
Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, was one of three black members of Congress who testified against Sessions, joining Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Cedric Richmond in protesting Sessions’ nomination along with other congressmen during confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Those in opposition at times referenced the allegations of racism Sessions has faced in the past.
Lewis gave an emotional speech recalling how he “tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and racial discrimination” in his youth in Alabama, and how he was badly beaten by police in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights.
“We were beaten, tear-gassed, left bloody, some of us unconscious. Some of us had concussions,” Lewis said of the march he helped organize. “Some of us almost died on that bridge.”
Lewis said that while the country has made progress since then, there are now “forces that want to take us back to another place.”
“It doesn’t matter whether Sen. Sessions may smile or how friendly he may be, whether he may speak to you,” Lewis told the committee members, according to The Hill. “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.”
Lewis spoke on the heels of Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat whose testimony against Sessions marked the first time a sitting senator has ever testified against another sitting senator in a Cabinet confirmation.
“I know that some of my colleagues aren’t happy that I am breaking with Senate tradition to testify on the nomination of my colleague, but I believe that the choice of standing with Senate norms or standing up for what my conscience tells me, I will always choose my conscience and country,” Booker said, according to ABC News.
Booker added that Sessions has not shown a “commitment to a central requisite of the job, to aggressively pursue the Congressional mandate of equal rights and justice for all citizens. In fact, at numerous times in his career, he has demonstrated a hostility towards these convictions.”
“The arc of the moral universe does not just naturally curve toward justice, we must bend it,” the New Jersey senator continued. “America needs an attorney general who is resolute and determined to bend the arc. Sen. Sessions’ record does not speak to that desire, intention or will.”
Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, also testified against Sessions, and objected to the fact that he, Lewis and Booker were forced to testify hours into the second and final day of Sessions’ confirmation hearings.
“I don’t mind being last. But 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,” Richmond said of Lewis.
“To have a living legend like John Lewis handled in such a fashion is beyond the pale and the message sent by this process is duly noted by me and the 49 members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the 78 million Americans we represent and the over 17 million African-Americans that we represent,” he added.
RELATED VIDEO: Trump Denies Claims He Employed Prostitutes in Russia: ‘I’m a Germaphobe’
Of Sessions, Richmond said that he is unfit to serve in the role of attorney general and that he cannot be relied upon to enforce the Voting Rights Act.
“He has no track record of fighting for justice for minorities,” Richmond said. “If he were in fact a champion for civil rights, wouldn’t the civil rights community support his nomination instead of speaking with one voice in near unanimous opposition?”
Richmond also told his fellow members of Congress that if they vote to confirm Sessions they will be “co-conspirator[s] in an effort to move this country backward.”
According to ABC News, three men who previously worked with Sessions in Alabama and Washington — and all of whom are black — testified in his support before the committee.
Jesse Seroyer, a former U.S. marshal for the Middle District of Alabama, said Sessions is a “good honest person who is going to give all he has to make sure everyone is treated fairly under the law.”
Earlier in the day, Attorney General Michael Mukasey also defended Sessions, writing in his testimony that “of all the insidious practices that have crept into our politics in recent times, I know of none more insidious than casual and unjustified accusations of racism, smears that once leveled are difficult to wipe clean.”