Coretta Scott King died 11 years ago today.
The widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, she rose from rural poverty in Heiberger, Alabama to become a national and international figure within the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Throughout her life, she remained a powerful voice on social and political issues; she opposed the death penalty, supported equal rights for women, and engaged in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. However, among the many issues that she spoke out about was the 1986 nomination of Jeff Sessions to serve as a federal judge.
In 1986, she issued a powerful nine page letter to the Senate urging them to vote down his nomination for a judgeship. In her letter, she condemned Sessions for undertaking a series of vote fraud investigations and prosecutions in Alabama during his time as a prosecutor.
His work targeting activists such as Albert Turner, who marched alongside Dr. King, ultimately had the effect of chilling the Black vote. The prosecutions ultimately proved baseless but the stinging legacy of Sessions’ work carried on throughout rural parts of the state.
King condemned Sessions and noted that his federal appointment would “irreparably damage the work” of Martin Luther King, Jr. In her words, “[t]he irony of Mr. Sessions’ nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods.” King’s words ultimately led a bi-partisan coalition of Senators to oppose Jeff Session’s judgeship nomination then and should lead the Senate to the same to oppose his nomination to serve as Attorney General now.
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If there is anything made clear over the last 10 days it’s that our country needs a strong Attorney General who will aggressively enforce our nation’s federal civil rights laws and act as a check against unlawful and abusive use of executive power.
The country now faces a constitutional crisis of great dimension as we have seen the President issue executive orders that threaten rights and principles that lie at the heart of American democracy. This past Friday, the President issued an order that indefinitely suspends the resettlement of Syrian refugees and temporarily bans people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US. The orders immediately resulted in chaos at airports, as travelers in transit at the time the order issued, including green-card holders, were denied entry into the country. The President’s actions sparked protests and demonstrations at airports and cities.
Lawyers took to airports to provide on-site counsel and assistance to impacted individuals and families. 5 courts over the weekend issued orders that either prohibited removal of individuals, and in one instance, required the return of an Iranian national who was sent back under the order. More lawsuits will follow. But, in many respects, the damage has been done. By singling out predominantly Muslim countries, we promote bigotry and dangerous stereotypes that will take a long time to reverse. In fact, it was both tragic and unsurprising to see the arson of a Mosque in Texas over the weekend and fatal shootings of several worshippers at a mosque in Quebec City.
The turmoil and dissension that we are now seeing across the country is precisely the kind of chaos that Coretta Scott King warned against when she opposed Jeff Sessions nominations in 1986. Senator Jeff Sessions remains as much an opponent of civil rights and civil liberties today as he was back then.
In 2015, he made statements revealing his support for a Muslim Ban and his record as a prosecutor makes clear that he would endorse any executive order on vote fraud should the President carry forth on his threat to issue one this week. That anyone would continue to promote the idea that our country suffers from widespread vote fraud is astonishing giving the extensive data and evidence showing the real threats to democracy including ongoing voter suppression, voting discrimination and Russia’s reported efforts to influence our elections.
Today is a moment for the public and the Senate to heed the words of Coretta Scott King as we remember her tragic death 11 years ago on this day. With the turmoil that has beset the nation, we need a strong Attorney General who will restore order and balance, and promote equal justice under law for all. Jeff Sessions is simply not qualified for this most important task.
Kristen Clarke is President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for civil Rights Under Law, one of the country’s leading national civil rights legal organizations.
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