By Ari Berman (The Nation)
He wrongly prosecuted black activists for voter fraud, was blocked from a judgeship because of racist statements, and opposed the Voting Rights Act.
Donald Trump has chosen a white nationalist as his chief strategist and a white-nationalist sympathizer as his pick for Attorney General. Like the Confederate general he is named after, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III has long been a leading voice for the Old South and the conservative white backlash vote Trump courted throughout his campaign. Sessions, as a US senator from Alabama, has been the fiercest opponent in the Senate of immigration reform, a centerpiece of Trump’s agenda, and has a long history of opposition to civil rights, dating back to his days as a US Attorney in Alabama in the 1980s.
The Senate rejected Sessions for a federal judgeship during the Reagan administration because of racist statements he made and for falsely prosecuting black political activists in Alabama. He opposed the Voting Rights Act, the country’s most important civil-rights law.
Here’s more on his checkered past, which is more relevant than ever today:
On March 7, 1965, Albert Turner, a tall, sturdy bricklayer from Marion, Alabama, walked directly behind John Lewis during the infamous Bloody Sunday march in Selma. When Lewis fell from the force of police blows, so did Turner. “I fell down and ran,” he said. “Then I fell down again and ran some more.”
After the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA), Turner became known as “Mr. Voter Registration,” working as Alabama field secretary for Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. After King’s assassination, Turner led the mule wagon that carried King’s body through the streets of Atlanta.
Because of Turner’s work, African Americans gained political control of many counties in the Alabama Black Belt, where you could practically count the number of black voters on one hand in 1965. But the flourishing of black political power in the Black Belt didn’t sit well with the old white power structure.
In the Democratic primary of September 1984, FBI agents hid behind the bushes of the Perry County post office, waiting for Turner and fellow activist Spencer Hogue to mail 500 absentee ballots on behalf of elderly black voters. When Turner and Hogue left, the feds seized the envelopes from the mail slots. Twenty elderly black voters from Perry County were bused three hours to Mobile, where they were interrogated by law-enforcement officials and forced to testify before a grand jury. Ninety-two-year-old Willie Bright was so frightened of “the law” that he wouldn’t even admit he’d voted.
In January 1985, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the 39-year-old US Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, charged Turner, his wife Evelyn, and Hogue with 29 counts of mail fraud, altering absentee ballots, and conspiracy to vote more than once. They faced over 100 years in jail on criminal charges and felony statutes under the VRA—provisions of the law that had scarcely been used to prosecute the white officials who had disenfranchised blacks for so many years. The Turners and Hogue became known as the Marion Three. (This story is best told in Lani Guinier’s book Lift Every Voice.)
The trial was held in Selma, of all places. The jury of seven blacks and five whites deliberated for less than three hours before returning a not-guilty verdict on all counts.
Four months later, the Reagan administration, to the astonishment of civil-rights supporters, nominated Sessions for a federal judgeship on the District Court of Alabama. “Mr. Sessions’ role in the voting fraud case in Alabama alone should bar him from sitting on the bench,” Ted Kennedy said.
Albert Turner’s brother flew to Washington from Perry County to oppose Sessions. In a highly unusual move, attorneys from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division also testified against him. Gerry Hebert, who worked in the Department of Justice’s Voting Section, told Congress that Sessions had called the NAACP and ACLU “Communist-inspired” and “un-American,” and labeled the white civil-rights lawyer Jim Blacksher “a disgrace to his race.” Thomas Figures, a black assistant US Attorney in Mobile, said that Sessions had repeatedly referred to him as “boy.” Figures said he heard from colleagues that Sessions “used to think [the KKK] were OK” until he learned that they were “pot smokers.” Sessions admitted to calling the VRA a “piece of intrusive legislation.”
A bipartisan coalition of senators sunk Sessions’s nomination, making him the first Reagan judicial nominee rejected by the Senate. Democratic Senator Howell Heflin of Alabama, who’d been elected with large black support, cast the decisive swing vote. “My conscience is not clear,” Heflin said, “and I must vote no.”
Now Sessions will be in charge of enforcing the civil-rights laws he once opposed, like the Voting Rights Act. He’s almost certain to further weaken what’s left of the law and to encourage the kind of bogus prosecutions for voter fraud that led him to be rejected for a federal judgeship.
Sessions hardly reformed his views after he was elected to the Senate in 1996. He frequently earned an “F” rating from civil-rights groups like the NAACP and “consistently opposed the bread-and-butter civil rights agenda,” Hillary Shelton, director of the NAACP’s Washington office, told The New Republic. He voted to reauthorize the VRA in 2006 but praised the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the law in 2013, cluelessly saying, “if you go to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, people aren’t being denied the vote because of the color of their skin.” (As but one example of ongoing voting discrimination, his home state of Alabama tried to close 31 DMV offices, many in majority-black counties, after instituting strict photo-ID requirements to vote.)
In February 2016, Sessions spoke at a ceremony awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the foot soldiers of the Selma voting-rights movement—some of whom he once falsely prosecuted for voter fraud. “Clearly I feel like I should have stepped forward more,” he said. But, like the man he’ll soon be working for, Sessions’s past and current views show that he remains on the wrong side of history.