The arc of U.S. history is on full display as the peaceful transition of power takes place from the administration of President Barack Obama to that of incoming President-elect Donald Trump. The first African-American president is about to hand the reins of power to the very man who led the racist “birther” campaign to delegitimize his presidency. As Trump continues to shock the world with his middle-of-the-night tweets, the flurry of Senate confirmation hearings exposed the hollow rhetoric of Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp.” Among the controversial and divisive cabinet nominees is his pick for attorney general: Jeff Sessions, the junior senator from Alabama.
President Obama delivered his farewell address Tuesday night. “Race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society,” Obama said. “For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s.”
Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III is named after his father and grandfather, but his first and middle names are steeped in the Confederacy: Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and P.G.T. Beauregard, the Confederate general who, after resigning his post in the U.S. Army at West Point, oversaw the bombardment of Fort Sumter in 1861, starting the U.S. Civil War. It wouldn’t be fair to hold Sessions accountable for his namesakes, the long-dead heroes of the Confederacy. But Senate confirmation hearings are an appropriate forum to hold nominees accountable for their own words and deeds.
Opposition to Sessions is broad and intense, and goes back decades. Sessions was appointed U.S. Attorney in Alabama in 1981, where he prosecuted legendary voting-rights activists, who were ultimately acquitted. Then, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan nominated him to a federal judgeship. At that Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., said: “Mr. Sessions is a throwback to a shameful era, which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past. It’s inconceivable to me that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a U.S. attorney, let alone a United States federal judge.” At the time, Sessions was one of the only people in the previous half-century to be denied an appointment as a federal judge by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
He later used Sen. Kennedy’s damning words to help him win election in 1994 as the Alabama attorney general. In just two years in that position, he aggressively defended Alabama’s execution of more than 40 prisoners convicted, according to The New York Times, “in trials riddled with instances of prosecutorial misconduct, racial discrimination and grossly inadequate defense lawyering.”
As U.S. senator, he voted against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and opposes comprehensive immigration reform, marriage equality and hate-crime protections for LGBTQ victims. He also is a fierce critic of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
On the second day of Sessions’ current confirmation hearings, members of the Congressional Black Caucus packed the hearing room. For the first time in Senate history, a sitting senator testified against another sitting senator’s confirmation. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said, “Senator Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requirement of the job: to aggressively pursue the congressional mandate of civil rights, equal rights and justice for all.”
Revered civil-rights activist and member of Congress John Lewis spoke eloquently of his youth in Alabama: “I was born in rural Alabama—not very far from where Senator Sessions was raised. There was no way to escape or deny the chokehold of discrimination and racial hate that surrounded us. I saw the signs that said ‘White Waiting, Colored Waiting.’... I tasted the bitter fruits of segregation and racial discrimination.”
Lewis spoke at the 1963 March on Washington, and was an organizer of the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 to register African-Americans to vote. Lewis and the other marchers were savagely beaten by Alabama State Police on what became known as “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965. He represents the living history of the struggle for racial and economic equality. His words have weight.
“The attorney general is expected to be a champion of justice for all people - not just the rich and the powerful,” Lewis closed. “As a fellow Southerner, I have no doubt that Senator Sessions is polite to all he meets. My concern is not about how nice he is. My concern is about where he will take the Department of Justice and whether he will respect the dignity and worth of every single person in our country—regardless of race, color or background.”
Sen. Sessions has been consistent throughout his career. The Senate Judiciary Committee should be equally consistent and reject Sessions as attorney general, as it rejected him for a judgeship 30 years ago.