Selma Haunts Jeff Sessions’ Confirmation Hearing
March 7, 1965 — a day known in history as “Bloody Sunday”: Alabama State Troopers viciously attack unarmed black voting rights activists, including John Lewis, on the outskirts of Selma. The attack hospitalizes 17 and injures another 50. Lewis is beaten so badly his skull is fractured. Before he is taken to the hospital, he turns to television news cameras and asks President Lyndon Johnson to send troops to protect his people.
Safely removed from the violence but perhaps watching its aftermath on television — is 19 year old Jeff Sessions. He was born in Selma but went to secondary school over the state-line in Georgia at Wilcox County High School (a school that won’t hold its first racially integrated prom until 2014).
The crackdown in Selma is part of the violent backlash against the struggle to overthrow the oppressive apartheid system that Lewis and Sessions have known all their lives. Their positions within this system make their interactions with it — and understanding of it — very different. John Robert Lewis was born to poor, black sharecroppers in the neighboring town of Troy. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was the son of a white, pro-segregation businessman.
On Bloody Sunday, John Lewis, despite his young age, is the leader of the SNCC — an organization campaigning for the passage of the Voting Rights Act — and helped organize the March on Washington in 1963. He was the youngest speaker at the event most remembered for Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
In contrast to Lewis, Jeff Sessions is not politically active but does enjoy reading National Review, which, Sessions will later say, helps him “develop a political philosophy that respected hard work, faith, and country.” In 1964, National Review backed Barry Goldwater, a conservative hardliner who won the GOP presidential nomination despite opposition from much of the party establishment. In the general election, Goldwater lost to President Johnson in a landslide but won of the Deep South, including Alabama, in part because he campaigned against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Over five decades later, Georgia Representative John Lewis and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions came face to face on Wednesday. The veteran four-term Republican Senator was the first to endorse Trump, and the President-elect has returned the favor by picking him to head the US Department of Justice (DOJ). The only thing between Sessions and his new job as US Attorney General is the Senate confirmation hearing. Because of the GOP’s majority control of the Senate, the hearing is widely seen as a formality — despite vocal opposition to Sessions from numerous civil society groups. A number of Democrats testified against Sessions’s confirmation. Lewis — now the last surviving member of the “Big Six” civil rights movement leaders — voiced his concern that the hard fought progress he has helped achieve over his long career will be threatened by a Sessions-led DOJ. Lewis, his voice shaking with emotion a times, made clear he has not forgotten the battles of his youth — battles he still bares the physical scars of.
Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Sen. Sessions’s 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.
This is not the first time Jeff Sessions’s nomination for federal office has caused controversy. In 1986, a Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee rejected his appointment to the US District Court for the Southern District of Alabama over concerns he was racially insensitive. During the confirmation hearing, four DOJ lawyers claimed that he made racially offensive comments including calling a white lawyer who defended black people in court a “disgrace to his race.” A black attorney claimed that Sessions had called him “boy.” Sessions denied the most serious allegations and variously defended or apologized for others but the Committee was not convinced.
His chances likely weren’t helped by his 1985 prosecution of three black community activists for voter fraud when he was U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. A jury acquitted the accused, which included Martin Luther King Jr’s former aide Albert Turner, who, like John Lewis, was beaten on Bloody Sunday.
In a nine page letter, The Washington Post published for the first time this week, MLK’s late widow Coretta Scott King cited what she called the “politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions” in Alabama as evidence that Sessions was unfit to serve on the Supreme Court. Sessions will “irreparably damage the work of my husband,” she warned.
In a scathing op-ed for the Boston Globe, Senator Patrick Leahy also used opposition to Sessions’s 1986 nomination to strengthen his own opposition to Sessions’s nomination this year. Noting that the current hearings are taking place in the Ted Kennedy Caucus Room, Leahy recalled the words of the late Senator:
Mr. Sessions is a throwback to a shameful era which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past. It is inconceivable to me that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a US attorney, let alone a US federal judge. He is, I believe, a disgrace to the Justice Department and he should withdraw his nomination and resign his position.
Sessions, as recently as 2009, still maintained that he did the “right thing” in perusing his failed voter-fraud prosecution. Although it is entirely possible that the jury was wrong in acquitting the Marion Three, this would not be enough to absolve Sessions’s of complicity in institutional racism.
Last year, Sessions worked with Democratic Senator Cory Booker to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the Selma marchers, but he has more often worked to undermine the civil and voting rights they marched for. Sessions is a supporter of restrictive voter ID laws that make it harder for black people and poor people to vote. He has also been a vocal critic of the Voting Rights Act — and has questioned its usefulness.
His track-record shows that Sessions is, regardless of his intentions, racially insensitive. He has supported and continues to support policies that disproportionately harm black people and minority communities. And as worrisome as his history on race is, his consistently misguided positions on civil rights in general — no matter what the racial group involved — are disastrous. They show both a needless cruelty and a stubborn irrationality. Neither trait — never mind both — is desirable for the head of the Department of Justice.
As Alabama Attorney General, Jeff Sessions was a relentless advocate of capital punishment. He worked to uphold the death sentences of more than 40 people between 1995 and 1997, including mentally ill and disabled people. After the Supreme Court banned the execution of people deemed “insane,” Sessions successfully worked to find a loophole that would allow the execution of a man who believed God would “reign in heaven as a tortoise.”
Sessions is a hardline opponent of drug policy and justice reform. He supports harsh mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders. These polices have unjustly caused mass criminalized in black and minority communities.
Even as evidence and public opinion have converged against the War on Drugs and a growing number of states vote to legalize marijuana, Sessions has remained a hawkish anti-drug warrior. In the Senate last April, Sessions declared, with a straight face, that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” This has raised concerns that as Attorney General, Sessions will go after states that have legalized weed.
Sessions’s recent history has done nothing to alleviate fears that he holds extreme views. In an interview with Alabama WAPI radio last year, Sessions praised Donald Trump for ads he ran in New York newspapers in 1989 that called for the execution of five teenagers — four black and one Hispanic — suspected of beating and raping a white woman in Central Park. The “Central Park Five” were convicted in 1990 but in 2002, serial rapist and murderer Matias Reyes confessed to the crime. DNA tests confirmed Reyes’s involvement in the Central Park attack — and the Central Park Five’s convictions were vacated.
One of the Five, Yusef Salaam claimed Trump manipulated the public “ into believing that we were guilty.” Even after the convictions were vacated, Trump remained unrepentant. In 2014, Trump called New York City’s $41 million settlement with the five wrongfully-convinced men — who sued over “malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress” — a “disgrace.” As recently as October 2016, Trump refused to admit the Central Park Five’s innocence.
According to Jeff Sessions, the man on the brink of holding the highest law enforcement position in the land, Donald Trump’s 1989 crusade against five innocent teenagers proves his commitment to “law and order.”
(opening photos: Spider Martin via KUOW.org)