Yet another Trump staffer is being brought down by allegations of improper and potentially illegal ties to Russia. This time it’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions: the former Alabama Senator has been accused of lying about speaking with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during his confirmation hearing.
But before Sessions was confirmed as Attorney General, numerous civil rights groups contested his nominated due to racist statements he has made in the past, and racist policies he advocates in the present. Though Russia may be his undoing, Jeff Sessions has led a career that should make him unfit to hold any office. Here are a handful of the worst things he’s done during a career punctuated by prejudice and bigoted actions.
In the 1980s, when Sessions was a prosecutor in Alabama, he was tasked with the prosecution of two Klansmen who had killed a black man named Michael Donald. After finding out the accused had smoked weed the night of the killing, Sessions said he thought the KKK was “OK, until I found out they smoked pot.” Thomas Figures, an African-American attorney who worked closely with Sessions on the case and was older than Sessions, reported that Sessions referred to him “boy” on numerous occasion, and told him to “be careful what you say to white folks.” Comments like these cost him a federal judgeship in 1986, but during Sessions’ confirmation hearing this time around he said he “had been loose with his tongue on occasion.” Unfortunately, that was enough to satisfy the U.S. Senate.
Dragged Towards Civil Rights
Sessions’ allies like to reference the KKK case as proof that he can be a fair arbiter of the law, but upon further scrutiny, the case shows us as prejudice-prone man nonetheless. At the time when Michael Donald’s killers were brought to justice, Sessions was also DA during the botched initial investigation of the case. Before the KKK was blamed for a lynching that had every hallmark of a hate crime, local law enforcement tried a number of times to shift the blame away from the KKK, attempting to tie Donald’s death to a drug deal gone wrong, an adulterous affair, and an invented liaison with a transgender prostitute. It was Thomas Figures who doggedly pursued the case until justice was served, while Sessions gets the credit today, despite presiding over the roadblocks that stood in the way of justice for so long.
During the failed confirmation hearing in 1986, Figures said just that, noting that while it was “literally true” that Sessions had not “obstructed the investigation of the murder of Michael Donald,” Sessions had “tried to persuade [Figures] to discontinue pursuit of the case.” This was not the end of the contentious relationship between Sessions and Figures. Figures was later charged with attempting to bribe a witness in a drug case. He was easily acquitted. Many close to the case feel the entire thing was retribution for his testimony against Sessions.
Bigotry at the Ballot Box
As Secession rose through the ranks of national Republican politics, accusations of bigotry continued to plague him. While Attorney General of Alabama, Sessions came after Albert Turner Jr., a civil rights activist who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, over bogus charges of helping voters cast illegal absentee ballots. In 1984, under Sessions, the FBI came into Alabama and knocked on the doors of rural shacks, trying to match the elderly with their voting ballots, and disqualifying them if the voter was illiterate. A sensible jury returned a not guilty verdict for the activists in under three hours. The court stated that Sessions’ vigor in the case “was activated by constitutionally impermissible motives such as racial… discrimination.”
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This same racial animus is evident in Sessions’ recent history. As both Attorney General and Senator, Sessions repeatedly blocked attempts to stop “vote dilution” which kept Southern political seats in white hands. He was also accused of working actively to keep black candidates out of judicial posts; one witness even places him in a conversation about suppressing black candidates for judge. Sessions supported the Supreme Court in striking down key portions of the Voting Rights Act, which he called “intrusive.” As a Senator, Sessions has opposed shortening sentences for nonviolent crimes which disproportionately target minorities. At the same time, he has resisted attempts to investigate issues, including racism charges, in police departments.
Racists a Greater Threat Than Russians
Whether you look at his words, his actions, or his legislative record, Jeff Sessions is a racist. He doesn’t just engage in the kind of arm chair racism that so many white people endure around the Thanksgiving dinner table. He has put his racism into action. Attacking voting rights, abetting gerrymandering, increasing sentences, and reducing police oversight: these are the ways that the South keeps itself reliably red and reliably Republican, despite a large minority population. Jeff Sessions is part of a legacy that stretches back to before the Civil War and moves from Nathan Bedford Forrest down to Strom Thurmond. His support for immigration raids and his crafting of the Muslim ban show that his bigotry is more dynamic and imaginative than even his contemporary Southern bigoted intellectuals. Jeff Sessions is a private racist, a public racist, and an institutional racist.
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If Sessions is removed from office because he spoke to the Russian Ambassador then lied about it, all the better. But, let’s be clear: it’s an insult to the United States that he was made Attorney General in the first place.