If you missed the opportunity to hear Georgia Congressman John Lewis, my hero, speak out at a Senate confirmation hearing last week, explaining why he cannot vote “yes” in favor of Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General of the nation, and why he will not participate in Donald Trump’s inauguration — well, you owe it to yourself to watch his remarkable speech in its entirety.
There is never an ounce of bitterness when John Lewis speaks, even when he talks about the vicious beating he received while peacefully marching from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery, some 50 years ago, asking for voting rights. The right to participate in the democratic election process of the country he calls “home.”
But he knows all about suppression of voting rights, and he almost paid with his life when he marched peacefully in 1965 to try to gain the right to vote in Alabama. Several times I have had the privilege of being in Congressman Lewis’ company and I asked him how he could possibly avoid even a trace of bitterness when he recites his horrendous experiences in the segregated South.
His answer is always the same: He believes in non-violence.
Senator Cory Booker was also impressive on that second day of Senate hearings into the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Booker made history as the first sitting Senator to speak out against the confirmation of a colleague of his in the Senate.
But his concern, like Lewis’ concern, was for having an Attorney General who would speak up and speak out for the rights of minorities, of poor people of those without a voice.
And then there was also on the panel Congressman Cedric Richmond, of Louisiana, the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, respectfully but sadly pointed out that having an icon like John Lewis testify at the very end of the hearings was like consigning “to the back of the bus” the six African Americans who testified.
And even though Senator Sessions was not required to sit through the many hours of testimony, it was a glaring omission that he absented himself from the hearing room when John Lewis et al were testifying.
My mother could not understand why three of the people who testified were in favor of Sessions, until I explained that those three had once worked for Senator Sessions and been on his payroll when he served as Attorney General of Alabama.
Neither Booker nor Redmond nor Lewis was the slightest bit vitriolic. They were just heartbroken that the highest legal officer in the land should be someone who had never spoken up for civil rights in the decades of his service in various positions. The three of them had no expectation that Sessions would suddenly turn into a champion for civil rights, especially since Donald Trump does not seem to be interested in the rights of people of color.
Lewis announced that he would not, could not participate in the Inauguration on Friday, as he did not consider Donald Trump the “legitimate President,” with everything that has been unearthed by the Intelligence community about the role played by Russian hackers. The tension between Trump and the various intelligence agencies has both Republicans and Democrats concerned, especially in these challenging times.
Lewis is like the conscience of the Congress, and some two dozen colleagues have followed his lead and bowed out of attendance on Friday at the White House ceremony. If they follow Congressman Lewis’ lead, they are doing this not out of spite, or vengeance, but because they are saddened by the prospect of someone’s assuming the Presidency who has not shown either respect or concern for people who are heroes in American history.
Perhaps you were as fortunate as I was to have seen Congressman Lewis in person most recently at the National Constitution Center a few months ago, when he was awarded the Liberty Medal. His voice is always gentle, but he always speaks passionately about his search for justice, for equality. He does respect the Office of the President, but he just believes that illegitimate means were employed either by Donald Trump or on Trumps’ behalf in order to secure the office.
Some day we will know the extent to which Russian hacking and Vladimir Putin meddled in our democratic process. In the meantime, though, I hope that President Trump will cease vilifying heroes like Congressman John Lewis simply because they disagree with him.
And because I, too, love America and value our democracy, I am praying that Donald Trump turns into a good President and respects the rights of all Americans. If Senator Jeff Sessions does become the Attorney General, I pray that he, too, will fight for the rights of all Americans.