Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Legacy Overshadows Jeff Sessions’ Dismal Civil Rights Record

Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (R-AL) is sworn in prior to his testimony before the Judiciary Committee in the United States Senate.

Making the case to reject the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) to be the 84th Attorney General of the United States.

By Roy Steele

When I opened my door to leave for work this morning, a handicapped neighbor was standing in the hallway of my building visibly upset. The prematurely bald veteran of the Iraq war said the elevator was out of service, and he needed help getting down three flights of stairs. I helped him down the stairs and headed over to Starbucks to satisfy my caffeine fix. I joined the line for coffee and noticed a striking biracial young woman in front of me, standing with a very tall guy who spoke with an unusual accent. The purple and blue haired Southeast Asian barista said it was Cornish, but it sounded like a Welsh accent to me. With a latte and blueberry scone in hand, I left the store and walked toward the subway station on Market Street.

As I reached the station on the corner I spotted fierce drag queen Hedda Lettuce on the other side of the street, in full makeup and a sequined frock. I wanted to go over to say hello but I needed to get to work, and hurried down the stairs into the station.

We see and walk past lots of people as we go about our day, and as the narrative above reflects, when you’re different from everyone else, people notice you.

Religious groups hold an anti-gay protest in San Francisco, California.

If you’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) in America, you’re aware that you could wander into a neighborhood you’re not familiar with, or walk down a street you’ve never visited before, and stick out like a sore thumb. Depending on the city or town you’re in, and the time of day, a wrong turn or a bad decision could place you in harm’s way.

As a gay man in America, I know that my life experiences have honed my ability to sense discomfort or hostility and danger in others. My senses are heightened and tuned to be hyper-aware of the people in my orbit. Over time this sensitivity to my surroundings has becomes second nature and I don’t really think about it much, though I know the hyper-sensitivity persists.

When you’re a minority group in America, you are acutely aware of your minority status, and cognizant that you could be marginalized and disenfranchised by the majority, at any time. When you’re different, you feel different, and you’re aware that other people look at you differently.

When you’re gay you can generally smell the bigotry from a mile away. LGBT people are frequent targets in some places for verbal and physical assaults and other hate crimes. The hard reality is that there are people in our society who are fear people who are different, and sometimes those fears and insecurities cause them to feel threatened and they act on those feelings with violence.

Westboro Baptist Church counter protest.

If you’re gay and caucasian, you can hide among a large crowd of people, though sometimes you can’t. People of color can’t hide, and women can’t either. If you’re a transgender woman of color, you are disproportionately targeted with acts of violence.

It should come as no surprise that unemployment, addiction, and mental health issues, are more acute and persistent among LGBT people and other minority communities.

There has been an astronomical rise in hate crimes since the election on November 8, 2016. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports anti-immigrant incidents (315) remain the most reported, followed by anti-black (221), anti-Muslim (112), and anti-LGBT (109).

Think about this for a minute. What tools do the most vulnerable in our society have to protect them from discrimination or acts of violence? Law enforcement, the rule of law, and societal norms, are the tools we have in place to protect everyone, and these institutions aren’t always there for everyone, and don’t always fulfill their promise or meet expectations.

Aside from the police, who enforces our laws? In most states and in the federal government, the top law enforcement position is the Attorney General. That’s why we need to pay attention to who the Attorney General is in our states and in Washington, D.C.

The Judiciary committee in the U.S Senate began public hearings to consider the nomination of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III to be the next Attorney General. Sessions is a controversial nominee and was rejected by the same committee in 1986, when he was nominated for a federal judgeship.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s widow Coretta Scott King wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, in March of 1986, urging them to reject Sessions.

Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should NOT be elevated to our courts. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.
The 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 sheriff’s accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods.
I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama, but also on the progress we have made toward fulfilling my husband’s dream.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King, wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, urging the Senate to reject Sessions, stating that his reprehensible record on race disqualified him and ran counter to her late husband’s dream of racial equality.

Several witnesses testified against him citing racism and a hostility for civil rights advocates and groups, and that testimony and charges of racism torpedoed his nomination to be a federal judge. The conservative Republican right-wing politician from Alabama was elected to be his state’s Attorney General, and later was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996.

Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) was the first Republican office-holder to publicly endorse President-elect Donald Trump for the GOP nomination, and he served as a close advisor to the candidate during the campaign. I’m guessing that Trump rewarded his loyalty with an appointment to head the Justice Department.

Sessions made his opening statement to the committee and I watched live on television. I was shocked when he promised to protect the rights of racial minorities and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. I was also surprised when he vowed to protect Roe v. Wade and abortion rights. He referenced his past and spoke about being acquainted with racism and the politics of race as a southerner.

I know that was wrong, and I know we need to do better. We can never go back. I am totally committed to maintaining the freedom and equality this country has to provide to every citizen and I can assure you that’s how I will approach it.

Sessions is seventy years old and has been in the Senate for twenty plus years, so I’m pretty familiar with his voting record and right-wing positions. He’s voted against the Violence Against Women Act, the Voting Rights Act, and The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. He voted for a constitutional amendment to ban marriage equality, is a leader in the movement to defund Planned Parenthood, wants to imprison abortion providers, and supports efforts to criminalize the undocumented.

He said that the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage was an “effort to secularize, by force and intimidation.” In 1996 he tried to ban an LGBTQ conference at the University of Alabama, and claimed that the gathering would do “irreparable harm” to the state. He is a co-sponsor of the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) that would sanction anti-gay discrimination, and voted against the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) gives him a zero rating on their scorecard, and inducted him into their Hall Of Shame in 2014.

Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (R-AL) at his confirmation hearing to be the 84th Attorney General of the United States.

Quite frankly, if you have a long voting record that reflects your opposition to the civil rights of women and minority groups, and you’re nominated for a job that is charged with protecting the rights of minorities, you shouldn’t be surprised when minority groups oppose your nomination.

It’s unprecedented but not surprising that a sitting United States Senator felt compelled to testify as a witness during the confirmation hearing, and oppose the nomination of his colleague and fellow Senator. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) urged his Senate colleagues to vote against confirming Sessions to be the 84th Attorney General of the United States.

During the second day of a very contentious confirmation hearing, three members of Congress testified against confirming Jeff Sessions as the next Attorney General. The chairman of the Black Congressional Caucus, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), civil rights luminary Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), and Senator Booker, all spoke about the significant role that our chief law enforcement officer plays in protecting the civil rights of minorities and the disenfranchised.

President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), and daughters Sasha and Malia wait with former President George W. Bush, former First Lady Laura Bush, prior to the walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, in Selma, Alabama, March 7, 2015. (Official White House Photograph by Lawrence Jackson)

The New York Times characterized the testimony of the civil rights leaders as powerful, emotional, and futile. They also indicated that they believe Senator Sessions will be confirmed.

We need someone as attorney general who’s going to look out for all of us, and not just some of us,” Mr. Lewis, a Democrat, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on the second and final day of testimony for Mr. Sessions’ nomination.
Mr. Booker broke with Senate tradition by testifying against a fellow senator, a decision that he cast as a matter of “conscience and country.”
He alluded to Mr. Sessions’ opposition to immigration and his support for voter-identification laws that disproportionately affect minorities and the poor.
“He will be expected to defend voting rights, but his record indicates that he won’t,” Mr. Booker said. “He will be expected to defend the rights of immigrants and affirm their human dignity, but his record indicates that he won’t.”
Mr. Lewis, who protested segregation alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was beaten severely during a march in Selma, Ala., said Mr. Sessions’ pledge to enforce “law and order” harked back to the era in which he grew up.
“Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Senator Sessions’ call for law and order will mean today what it meant in Alabama when I was coming up back then,” Mr. Lewis said.
Mr. Lewis urged senators to focus on those views. “It doesn’t matter how Senator Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he may speak to you,” he said.

I would love to believe that the nominee for Attorney General will become an overnight champion for women’s rights, LGBT rights, and the rights of the undocumented. I’d like to have faith that the Senator will be a vigilant watchdog to fight racism, curb racial profiling, and combat racial bias in local police forces. I wish that we could take him at his word, and support his nomination, because we are confident that he always does what’s right.

There is NOTHING in Jeff Sessions record to indicate that he has ever evolved or changed his mind on any issue. The man does not believe in or support equal rights, and he has NEVER supported legislation to expand or protect the rights of anyone. He has a forty year record that reflects no respect for the rights of minority groups.

You probably don’t remember this, but we’ve been down this road before. In 2000, incumbent Senator John Ashcroft (R-MO) was up for re-election and lost to the Democrat, who died three weeks before the election. Voters chose the dead guy over Ashcroft. President-Elect George W. Bush came to his rescue, and nominated the unemployed Ashcroft to be Attorney General.

Ashcroft’s conservative record and extreme views were very similar to Sessions. Ashcroft opposed busing to achieve desegregation, opposed abortion under any circumstances, and he was virulently anti-gay. He was confirmed despite strong opposition from Democrats in the Senate, and served as Attorney General for four years (2001–2005). Lucky for us his tenure was unremarkable, and he’s now a lobbyist in D.C.

Sessions could choose to enforce our laws with vigor or timidity. The former will endear him to civil rights groups around the country, while the latter will embolden his critics and reinforce the perception that his bias prevailed. The choice will be his to make.

On Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, it’s imperative that we remember his legacy and move forward not back. That’s why we must urge the Senate to oppose Jeff Sessions’ nomination to lead the Justice Department as Attorney General. Too many lives could be put in danger if we don’t.