When Coretta Scott King takes time to prepare a nine-page letter expressing grave concerns about your civil rights record, you have a real problem.
In 1986, King wrote a letter to the Senate urging them to reject Sessions’ nomination to become a federal judge. King’s opposition focused largely on Sessions’ now-notorious criminal prosecution of civil rights activists who had been working to register and mobilize Black voters across the Black Belt of Alabama. Among them was Albert Turner, then-President of the Perry County Voter’s League, who had marched alongside Dr. King and was beaten while crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 during Bloody Sunday.
After passage of the Voting Rights Act, Turner, his wife and other local leaders were working across the state to promote voter registration and mobilization. In fact, Turner became known as “Mr. Voter Registration,” and is credited with helping increase Black voter registration rates across the Black Belt.
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Jeff Sessions, then U.S. Attorney, opened up an investigation into the activities of the activists. Hundreds of people were interrogated by federal investigators. In the end, close to two dozen Black residents, many of them elderly, were rounded up by the busload and forced to testify under oath before a grand jury.
A federal grand jury indicted Turner, his wife Evelyn and his colleague Spencer Hogue Jr. on dozens of counts of mail fraud and conspiracy. Evelyn was also charged with notarizing absentee ballots in the absence of voters, and Turner and Hogue were both accused of submitting multiple ballots.
As many proclaimed at the outset of the investigation, the charges were baseless and racially inspired. Federal District Judge Emmett Cox dismissed 50 counts against the defendants due to lack of evidence before the case even went to trial. Ultimately, the jury very quickly acquitted the Marion Three of every single outstanding charge.
But the stain of those prosecutions lingered on, driving fear across minority communities.
Maryland state legislator Clarence Mitchell stated that the KKK and White Citizens’ Councils could shutter their operations because the government, under Sessions, was carrying out their work with taxpayer dollars.
King could not sit silent when Sessions’ name was advanced for a federal judgeship in 1986. In her letter of opposition, she noted that “[a]nyone who has used the power of his office … to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts.” She decried Sessions’ abuse of the “awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.”
Testimony at the 1986 hearing presented even more cause for concern. Thomas Figures, who worked alongside Sessions as an Assistant Attorney, said Sessions repeatedly addressed him as “boy,” and lawyer Gerry Hebert testified that Sessions described the NAACP as a “Communist-inspired” and “un-American” organization. A Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the Sessions nomination — the first such rejection of a federal judgeship nominee in close to 50 years at that time.
In 2017, the facts of this case remain unchanged. In fact, Sessions’ record amassed since that time make clear his continued hostility to civil rights. Whether his opposition to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act or opposition to reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, Sessions has made clear that he is no defender of civil rights. He has described the Voting Rights Act as an “intrusive piece of legislation” and claims that there is no voting discrimination today in states such as Alabama, North Carolina and Georgia.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Voter suppression continues to stand as a threat and police departments across our nation, including Baltimore and Chicago, stand in need of reform. Housing and employment discrimination remain real threats and we are still fighting to achieve the goals underlying Brown v. Board of Education.
In 2017, to appease those who analyze his record closely, he has essentially created a record by fully overstating his role in civil rights cases from the past. In his recent response to a standard Questionnaire, he identified four civil rights cases as ones that he worked on "personally." Among them was a school desegregation case that my colleague, Joseph Rich, worked on while an attorney at the Justice Department. Rich can tell anyone categorically that Sessions had no substantive involvement in these cases. Joe Rich and other civil rights lawyers such as Gerry Hebert were there, on the ground, in the communities, inside the courtroom, but Jeff Sessions was never there. Senator Sessions’ strategy has been to make himself out as a civil rights champion, but nothing could be further from the truth.
And it’s not just on issues of race. During a debate on immigration reform, Sessions stated that “almost no one coming from the Dominican Republic to the [U.S.] is coming here because they have a provable skill that would benefit us and that would indicate their likely success in our society.” He failed to support the renomination of Abdul Kallon, who would have been the first African American to sit on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. And every single judge on the three highest courts in Alabama is white because of voting discrimination — the kind of discrimination that he has never condemned. He has also indicated that he believes we have “voter fraud in America” — an astonishing statement after living with the legacy of the Marion Three prosecutions. In a June 2012 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he made statements legitimizing government-issued photo ID requirements for voters.
Jeff Sessions has yet to acknowledge the systemic problems of voting discrimination that stand as a dark cloud over our democracy. How can he be entrusted to enforce the law, fairly and evenly? Would he, as King cautioned, abuse the awesome powers of the Justice Department to levy vote fraud prosecutions on minority communities across our nation? Would he turn a blind eye to police shootings?
Our nation deserves an Attorney General who will fight voter suppression, and will enforce our laws fairly and evenly to ensure equal justice under law for all Americans. The facts surrounding the Marion Three case remain unchanged. The words of Coretta Scott King and the the ghost of Albert Turner loom over Jeff Sessions and will hopefully lead the Senate to stand on the right side of history and reject his nomination.
Kristen Clarke is the executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.