In the upside-down reality that is the incoming Donald Trump administration, Attorney General nominee Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a stalwart opponent to civil rights, is attempting a makeover in which he paints himself as one of its most loyal champions. But Sessions’ record on civil rights is too messy and consistently terrible to undo his notorious reputation. And new witnesses have come forward to strongly refute Sessions’ fitness to lead the Justice Department and oversee enforcement of Americans’ civil rights.
Though his nomination by President-elect Donald Trump to serve as U.S. Attorney General may clear Congress, Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions cannot escape his legacy. A new wave of prominent attorneys and public servants with first-hand knowledge of Sessions’ civil rights record have come forward to challenge not only his nomination, but the accuracy of Sessions’ own verbal and written statements to Congress regarding this record.
It has already been widely reported that Sessions was unable to survive Congressional scrutiny in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan attempted to appoint him to the federal bench. Televised hearings revealed that he had made numerous racist remarks, had labeled the NAACP and ACLU as "un-American," and that a Black Assistant U.S. Attorney who worked for him accused Sessions of repeatedly referring to him as "boy."
Since his nomination by President-elect Donald Trump to succeed Loretta Lynch as Attorney General, the Trump team, and Sessions himself, have made attempts to sidestep and clean up Sessions’ notoriously anti-civil rights history. In a questionnaire that Sessions filed with the Senate Judiciary Committee, he claims four civil rights cases — three involving voting rights and one regarding school desegregation — among the ten most significant cases he has "personally" litigated, and goes out of his way to state that he sponsored the first Black member to the Mobile Lions Club.
Sessions has also distributed talking points to surrogates to present him as a friend to African Americans who supported the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.
However, this carefully crafted campaign is already falling apart. Three former Justice Department civil rights attorneys — J. Gerald Herbert, Joseph D. Rich, and William Yeomans, who were directly involved in initiating and litigating three of the cases Sessions identified in his questionnaire — have come forward to set the record straight.
In a statement published in the Washington Post, the attorneys not only refute Sessions’ involvement in these cases, but also excoriate his record on civil rights:
Attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions is trying to mislead his Senate colleagues, and the country, into believing he is a champion for civil rights. We are former Justice Department civil rights lawyers who worked on the civil rights cases that Sessions cites as evidence for this claim, so we know: The record isn’t Sessions’s to burnish ... We worked in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which brought those lawsuits; we handled three of the four ourselves. We can state categorically that Sessions had no substantive involvement in any of them. He did what any U.S. attorney would have had to do: He signed his name on the complaint, and we added his name on any motions or briefs. That’s it.
Not only was Sessions no more than a rubber stamp on the court filings made by these attorneys, but in his 1986 confirmation hearings and Senate questionnaire, he himself acknowledged this fact.
However, consistent with the style of the President-elect whom he would serve as Attorney General, truth is a relative and constantly shifting concept.
Herbert, Rich, and Yeomans go on to offer damning commentary from their first-hand experience on Sessions’ "brazen" effort to "pass himself off as a civil rights hero":
Sessions’s dubious questionnaire is not an isolated incident. It is part of a concerted effort to make his abysmal civil rights record look exemplary...Sessions has not worked to protect civil rights. He worked against civil rights at every turn. Sessions knows that his real record on race and civil rights is harmful to his chances for confirmation. So he has made up a fake one. But many of us who were there — in Alabama in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond — are still around. We lived that story, too. And we are here to testify that Sessions has done many things throughout his 40-year career. Protecting civil rights has not been one of them.
And this powerful commentary is only the tip of the iceberg. On the same day as this Washington Post expose, Democratic Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts joined the rising chorus of individuals coming forward to set the record straight on Sessions’ civil rights record.
In a strongly-worded letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick recalled his experience in 1985 as an NAACP attorney who argued and won a case against then-federal prosecutor Sessions, who had brought federal voting rights fraud against three Black civil rights leaders, one of whom had helped Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organize the infamous Selma march, and who was bludgeoned on "Bloody Sunday." In what appeared to be an attempt to intimidate Black voters from standing up for their rights reminiscent of the civil rights struggle, Patrick notes Sessions’ use of FBI agents under his authority to "spread fear and intimidation" among potential Black witnesses who might testify on behalf of the civil rights workers.
And Sessions’ track record in opposition of the protection of minorities’ civil rights is not limited to the rights of African-Americans. The Southern Poverty Law Center has singled out Sessions — who, ironically, chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee — for his close and longstanding ties to anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant organizations and extremists, identifying him as "the key bridge between the anti-immigrant movement and Congress."
Three of those organizations are the Federation for Immigration Reform (FAIR), the Center for Immigration Studies, and Numbers USA. Sessions regularly attends events sponsored by FAIR, which SPLC has designated as a hate group and whose leaders are closely connected with white supremacist groups and eugenics proponents and are regularly criticized for making racist statements. All three organizations were founded by John Tanton, a key figure in the "nativist" movement with deep involvement in the "white nationalist scene."
In addition to these anti-immigration groups, Session maintains close ties with, and has received awards from, vehemently anti-Muslim groups such as the David Horowitz Freedom Center and the Center for Security Policy. SPLC commented:
It’s not hard to see why leaders of the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movements are so pleased with Trump’s appointment of Sessions as attorney general. Their champion has moved from the Senate to the doorstep of the Attorney General’s Office.
And as Sessions was one of Trump’s earliest and closest supporters and advisors during the campaign, it is not hard to see why white nationalists cheered and raised Nazi salutes to celebrate the prospect of a Trump administration shortly after his election.
More than 1,300 prominent law school professors from 49 states (Alaska currently has no law school within its borders) find the Sessions nomination so concerning and potentially dangerous to the administration of justice that they have sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and are taking out a full-page newspaper ad to oppose his confirmation.
In their strongly-worded statement, they declare they are "convinced that Jeff Sessions will not fairly enforce our nation’s laws and promote justice and equality in the United States." In bold, underlined letters, they emphasize:
"All of us believe it is unacceptable for someone with Senator Sessions’ record to lead the Department of Justice."
The voices in opposition to Sessions’ nomination to become the nation’s chief law enforcement officer and prosecutor are expanding in volume and scope. The depth and details of Sessions’ lack of fitness to serve in this role is, quite simply, undeniable.
NAACP leaders who attempted a sit-in at Sessions’ Alabama office in protest of his nomination may have been promptly arrested and removed. But the attention that they and others are giving to the ugly reality of Sessions’ track record and true allegiances in the areas of civil rights and justice can no longer be ignored.