Senator Jeff Sessions speaking at the Values Voter Summit in Washington, DC. Photo by Gage Skidmore.
In the aftermath of the Charleston church shootings, photos of Dylann Roof and his many Confederate flags flooded into our collective conscience.
To most in the Deep South, the indefensible Confederate flag had finally run out of defenders. With South Carolina leading the way, statehouse after statehouse finally stopped flying the flag on the capitol grounds.
In Alabama, however, U.S. Senator Jeff Sessions not only defended the symbol of slavery and treason, but insisted it was wrong not to fly it in Alabama's capital. "It is not appropriate for us to erase history and who we are and our ancestors. I had ancestors – my great grandfather was killed at Antietam. I don’t think he was an evil person. He was called to serve his country as he knew it at that time and he did his duty leaving my grandfather, a baby, at home.”
That grandfather was named Jefferson (in honor of Confederate President Jefferson Davis) Beauregard (in honor of acclaimed Confederate General Pierre Beauregard) Sessions. Senator Jeff Sessions is the third to carry that family name. His full name is Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. Not only could his perpetual smirk have “central casting” peg him for "Senator Deep South," but he's got the name and backstory to boot!
On the same day that Dylann Roof was sentenced to death, Jeff Sessions started his confirmation hearings to be the next U.S. Attorney General, a position that enforces, among other things, our nation’s civil rights laws. Sessions testified before the same U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee that had denied him a judgeship in 1986 as a result of accusations of personal and professional racism.
Sessions, while he was a U.S. Attorney, allegedly scolded an African American Deputy U.S. Attorney (the first in Alabama), telling a white secretary in the office he wasn't being polite enough. "Be careful what you say to white folks," was the warning from Sessions. Another deputy said Sessions voiced his distaste for the NAACP, saying the group was "un-American and "forced civil rights down the throats of people."
On another occasion, Sessions was prosecuting two Klansmen who, in an act of unbridled terrorism, randomly kidnapped an African American teen named Michael Donald as he was walking home. They took Donald to an isolated area, hit him more than a hundred times with a tree branch, bound him, hanged him with a noose, and slit his throat. It was while working on this case that Sessions joked, "I thought those guys (the KKK) were OK until I learned they smoked pot."
Officially, Sessions also made the highly dubious decision as a U.S. Attorney to selectively prosecute three nationally known African American civil rights activists on a flimsy voter fraud case. The jury quickly found the three not guilty and many felt the charges were more of an intimidation tactic to prevent get-out-the-vote efforts in Alabama's so-called "Black Belt."
Saturday Night Live recently poked fun at this and other Trump nominations with fictional meth king pin Walter White being appointed by Trump to head of the Drug Enforcement Agency.
With this very, very, white elephant in the room, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee sought to kill it right out of the gate. Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, went through all the cases with a civil rights angle that Sessions had prosecuted—including the Donald case—apparently to demonstrate Sessions' lack of racism. “These are not the actions of a man who is motivated by racial animus," Collins declared.
Collins also repeated a phrase that nearly all the other Republican Senators also used, "you know him well"— which, loosely translated in Senatorial Speak, means “don't believe your lyin' eyes” or “he’s one of us.”
Sessions himself did his best to insulate himself from the charges in his opening statement. New York Times reporter Jennifer Steinhauer, paraphrased his pleadings as, "I care about civil rights. I care about voting rights. I have heard your issues. I get it."
Reminiscent of the Christine O’Donnel “I am not a witch” ad, Sessions also laid down this important pre-requisite in his opener: "I abhor the Klan."
Democrats on the Committee were far from convinced that Sessions indeed got it. After all, this was the same Jeff Sessions who had a flat zero voting record on most civil rights organizations' score cards and was the first U.S. Senator to endorse Donald Trump—essentially legitimizing a racist candidate who had previously been shunned by nearly all of the Republican establishment.
Senator Diane Feinstein, Democrat of California, pushed back hard, noting that Sessions not only supported Trump's unworkable plan to ban people entering the United States based on their religion, but actually spoke for thirty minutes against a Sense of the Senate pointing out the nonsense of it all:
Senator Al Franken forced Sessions to admit that, although he had claimed to have "personally handled" "twenty to thirty" civil rights cases, the actual number was about a quarter of that estimate. And, even her, Sessions's involvement was minimal and perfunctory.
Another key moment came during te turn of Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois. "There is not a spot of evidence in your public career to suggest that as attorney general, you would use the authority of that office to resolve the challenges of our broken immigration system in a fair and humane manner. Tell me I'm wrong." Sessions stammered, "Well . . . you are wrong, Senator Durbin. I'm going to follow the laws passed by Congress."
The real fireworks are expected, however, on day two, when for the first time in Senate history, Senator Cory Booker will testify against a fellow senator seeking a cabinet post. In an interview before his testimony, Booker said that he personally told Sessions he had "grave concerns" about him becoming Attorney General.
"I felt a moral obligation to speak out because I feel that silence in these moments in history are unacceptable."
Jud Lounsbury is a political writer based in Madison, Wisconsin and a frequent contributor to The Progressive.