WASHINGTON ― The chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus slammed Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) on Wednesday for making black lawmakers wait until the end of a hearing to testify against U.S. attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, comparing it to “being made to go to the back of the bus.”
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), who leads the 49-member caucus, joined Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon, on the final panel in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Sessions’ nomination. Committee chairmen often let lawmakers testify first in hearings, as a courtesy, before members of the public. In this case, Grassley opted not to do so. That meant lawmakers had to wait to lodge their opposition after public testimony was heard. This didn’t sit well with Richmond.
“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,” said the Louisiana Democrat.
Several CBC members sitting behind him in the audience nodded as he spoke, with a couple letting out “yeahs” and some brief applause.
“It is a petty strategy,” Richmond continued. “I don’t mind being last. But 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 CBC and the 78 million Americans we represent and the over 17 [million] African-Americans we represent.”
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), a founding CBC member and dean of the House, noted in a statement the “lack of comity and respect” afforded to the black lawmakers.
Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine said the black lawmakers requested a panel “after the hearing had already been set,” so Grassley tried to accommodate around that.
“It would have been disrespectful to make the other witnesses wait who were already slated to testify on the citizen panel, including people like Larry Thompson who served as Deputy Attorney General of the United States,” Levine said. “So, a third panel was set to accommodate all witnesses in the fairest way.”
CBC members have serious problems with Sessions’ nomination. The Republican senator from Alabama supports a system of mass incarceration that disproportionately targets African-Americans. He opposed bipartisan criminal justice reform, and said it was a good thing when the Supreme Court gutted a key piece of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. There was the time in 1986 he was rejected as a federal judge for being too racist, and a year before that, as a U.S. attorney, he unsuccessfully prosecuted black civil rights activists for voter fraud ― including a former aide to Martin Luther King Jr.
“He has demonstrated a total disregard for the equal application of justice and protection of the law as it applies to African-Americans, and falls short on so many issues,” Richmond told the committee. “In my capacity as chair of the CBC, I urge you to reject Sen. Sessions’ nomination.”
Before wrapping up, he made it clear, again, how unhappy CBC members are that Grassley made Lewis speak at the end of the hearing.
“I would not have the opportunity to testify today if not for men like John Lewis, who was beaten within an inch of his life in his pursuit of the right to vote for African-Americans,” Richmond said. “It’s a shame he must sit here and re-litigate this 50 years later.”
When Lewis did speak, he recalled the days of discrimination in the 1960s South, when “any black person ... who looked a white person directly in the eyes could be arrested and taken to jail.” Times have changed, he said, but warned of “forces that want to take us back.”
“It doesn’t matter how Sen. Sessions may smile,” he said, “how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you, but we need someone who is going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people that need help.”
A Lewis spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
The committee is expected to approve Sessions’ nomination this month.
This post has been updated with a response from Grassley’s spokeswoman and portions of Lewis’ hearing testimony.