MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Moral Courage Is Standing Up for What Is Right

Several civil rights groups, including the NAACP, oppose U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions' attorney general nomination. This photo was taken during an immigration policy speech hosted by Donald Trump at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix. (Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons)

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. Even a superficial look at history reveals that no social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step towards the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle … This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action. — Martin Luther King Jr.

On Wednesday, Jan. 11, Sen. Cory A. Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) joined the list of speakers testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee against the nomination of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for Attorney General of the United States. 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.”

Several Senate committee members who have publicly supported Sen. Sessions left before Sen. Booker’s and Rep. 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 Sen. Sessions becomes attorney general.

Congressman Lewis noted that he was born in rural Alabama too, not far from where Sen. Sessions grew up, but as a black child he inherited a far different society: “There was no way to escape or deny the choke hold 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. These are the voices I represent today. We can pretend that the law is blind. We can pretend that it is evenhanded. 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.”

In additional written remarks, Congressman Lewis was even clearer about some of his current fears: “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. Representing Alabama on this Committee, Sen. Sessions had an opportunity to lead. Instead, 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 Sen. 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 must face the truth. We are a multiracial, 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.”

Sen. Booker, born after the Civil Rights Movement, made it clear that he feels personally indebted to heroes like John Lewis who were attacked and some even killed during the struggle to make America a more just nation — and equally resolute against moving backwards. He took the courageous step of being the first sitting senator to testify against the confirmation of another senator. 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 . . . If there is no justice, there is no peace. The Alabama State Troopers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge were seeking law and order. The marchers were seeking justice — and ultimately the greater peace.”

Sen. Booker added: “If confirmed, Sen. Sessions will be required to pursue justice for women, but his record indicates that he won’t. He will be expected to defend the equal rights of gay and lesbian Americans, but his record indicates that he won’t. He will be expected to defend voting rights, but his record indicates that he won’t. He will be expected to defend the rights of immigrants and affirm their human dignity, but his record indicates he won’t. His record indicates that as attorney general he would obstruct the growing national bipartisan movement toward criminal justice reform. His record indicates that we 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; Sen. Sessions would not continue to lead urgently needed change … 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 Sen. Booker and Congressman Lewis for their extraordinary testimony and moral leadership. At the end of his statement Congressman Lewis said, “Leadership is not easy. You are expected to make tough decisions — to do what is right, what is just, and what is fair for all the people of this nation who rely on you to speak up and speak out on their behalf.”

They spoke on behalf of the majority, millions of Americans, who are afraid of a new onslaught of attempts to push the arc of our nation away from justice — and seek leaders vigilant and determined to keep fighting every step of the way to make America a better and fairer nation. As we celebrate 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 president of the Children’s Defense Fund.