On March 7, 1965, John Lewis was smashed in the head by an Alabama state trooper while protesting for the right to vote.
The impact fractured his skull. Two weeks later, Lewis marched with Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which helped convince Congress to pass the original Voting Rights Act into law.
Today, Lewis is a U.S. Congressman, and with colleagues from the Congressional Black Caucus sitting behind him, he recalled those events in his testimony against fellow Alabamian Jeff Sessions' nomination for attorney general.
Sessions' repeated pledges to enforce "law and order" in his new role struck a discordant note with Lewis, whose politics were molded by a society where that phrase meant different things to different groups of people.
"Those who are committed to equal justice on our society wonder whether Senator Sessions’ call for 'law and order' will mean today what it meant in Alabama when I was coming up back then," Lewis said.
Sen. Cory Booker's testimony may have grabbed most of the pre-hearing headlines — but it was Lewis' testimony that spoke most powerfully to what's at stake with Sessions' nomination.
With his address, Booker became the first sitting senator to testify against a colleague in a hearing, and he spoke eloquently about the need to continue important work on criminal justice reform and to defend the rights of marginalized people.
Lewis placed Booker's calls in historical context, citing the unfinished work of the civil rights movement as the primary reason to demand an attorney general defend its hard-won gains. Sessions has criticized Black Lives Matter for making "radical" statements and essentially contributing to demoralization among law enforcement.
“We can pretend that the law is blind. We can pretend that it’s 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," Lewis said in his testimony.
Lewis also used his testimony to rebut an early exchange between Sessions and committee member Lindsay Graham, where Sessions revealed that it was "very painful" to be labeled a bigot and a racist.
In his first day of hearings, Sessions called parts of the Voting Rights Act "intrusive" and renewed his support for Voter ID laws, which critics say depress minority turnout.
"It doesn’t matter how Senator Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you. But we need someone who’s going to stand up, speak up, and speak out for the people that need help," Lewis said, "for people who have been discriminated against."
With Republican control of the Senate, Sessions will likely be confirmed. Still, as he steps into the role, he'd be wise to heed Lewis' final words of the afternoon.
"We need someone as attorney general who’s going to look out for all of us and not just for some of us," Lewis concluded.
Sessions' Senate colleagues — on both sides of the aisle — clearly think he's a nice guy. Several of his colleagues of color, including an attorney worked under him in Alabama, testified that he treated them with the utmost respect. That's great, but only goes so far.
When faced with the monumental task of safeguarding the civil rights for all Americans, Lewis is spot-on in his analysis.
Courtesy is nice.
Words are nice.
But it's actions that truly count.