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Sessions's Old-Time Contempt for Civil Rights

By       Message Dennis Bernstein       (Page 1 of 4 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   3 comments

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Jeff Sessions supports Donald Trump at a rally.
Jeff Sessions supports Donald Trump at a rally.
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While much media attention has focused on President-elect Donald Trump's fringe supporters in the "alt-right" and white-nationalist movements, there's been less press alarm about his appointment of Sen. Jeff Sessions to lead the U.S. Justice Department despite the senator's long record of hostility toward civil rights.

Yet the Sessions appointment may have much more ominous implications. As a legal official in Alabama last century, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III conducted phony voter fraud investigations aimed at African-Americans and denounced leading organizations in the fight against racial segregation, telling aides that he considered the NAACP and the ACLU to be "un-American" and "Communist-inspired." Sessions also is anti-LGBT rights, pro-capital punishment and hostile to abortion rights.

Responding to Trump's nomination of Sessions to be Attorney General, the ACLU said, "as the nation's highest-ranking law enforcement official, the attorney general is charged with protecting the rights of all Americans, yet Sessions has a reported history of making racist comments."

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But Sessions's record goes far beyond racially insensitive remarks. In 1996, I traveled through Alabama and Mississippi with fellow journalist Ron Nixon as we investigated a wave of arson against black churches.

President Bill Clinton had said, "It is clear that racial hostility is the driving force behind a number of these incidents." Then-U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Deval Patrick, launched what he called "the largest federal civil rights investigation that we have had in some time. This is not a lightly taken investigation."

However, Alabama's Attorney General at the time was Sessions, who was in a close race for the U.S. Senate. Sessions's approach to the burning of some 40 black churches over 18 months from late 1994 into 1996 was to turn the investigation into a joint probe linking the church burnings to an investigation of black voter fraud through alleged misuse of absentee ballots. The connection supposedly was that black voting-rights activists tried to cover up the fraud by burning down their own churches.

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In hearings held at the time by the House Judiciary Committee, one minister told Congress that he had been asked to take a lie-detector test regarding voter fraud. Another testified that the financial records from his church were subpoenaed.

"Why are they harassing members of the church instead of these redneck terrorists who are burning down black churches," asked the Reverend Joseph Lowery, then President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). "It's hard for me to believe we can find terrorists all over the world with our sophisticated equipment, but we can't find a bunch of amateur terrorists here in America."

Despite the long history of white racists burning down black churches as a means of political intimidation, state and federal investigators found nothing to suggest a racial motivation to the dozens of church burnings. Thomas Figures, a black former Assistant U.S. Attorney who had worked under Sessions before quitting and accusing Sessions of calling him "boy," said it was highly unusual to combine two investigations, the church burnings with the voter-fraud suspicions.

Figures blamed the lack of any positive breakthrough in the church fires on "the recalcitrance and the reluctance and the outright hostility of some Southern law enforcement agencies and officials, like Sessions, toward enforcing civil rights."

But the Clinton administration also appeared hesitant to move too aggressively on such a politically sensitive topic. Barrown Lankster, Alabama's first elected black district attorney, unsuccessfully petitioned the Justice Department to conduct an investigation into the vandalism of three churches in Sumter County and a shooting into the house of a Circuit judge who had ruled against two white youths in a church arson case.

"I even wrote to Attorney General Janet Reno personally asking that these actions be pursued as civil rights violations," Lankster said in a 1996 interview. "The criminal division in Washington told me they were going to make a determination. But after a long wait I was told that they were not inclined to view this as a civil rights violation for prosecutorial purposes."

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Sessions for U.S. Senate

At the same time of the church burnings, Sessions was in a close race to become the next U.S. Senator from Alabama to replace retiring Democrat Howell Heflin, who had cast a deciding vote to block Sessions's appointment in the 1980s to be a federal judge.

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Dennis J Bernstein is the host and executive producer of Flashpoints, a daily news magazine broadcast on Pacifica Radio. He is an award-winning investigative reporter, essayist and poet. His articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Nation, and (more...)
 

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