On Tuesday, February 7, 2017, United States Senator Elizabeth Warren stood to voice her objection to the nomination of Alabama Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III as the new Attorney General under the administration of President Donald J. Trump. The Senate debate over Sessions’ candidacy had just heated up, and the world was watching as the drama (by Senate standards) unfolded. As she gave her remarks, she began to read from a letter written 30 years ago by Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King III, in which Mrs. King strongly criticized Sessions’ conduct as an Alabama prosecutor in the 1980s and urged the Senate at the time to reject his candidacy for a federal judgeship for which he had been nominated by then-President Ronald Reagan. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responded to Mrs. Warren’s reading of the letter by citing a little-used, arcane and elitist procedural rule (“Rule 19”, which forbids Senators to “impugn” the reputation or motives of another Senator) to order Mrs. Warren to, in effect, sit down and shut up.
The tactic by McConnell, one of the Republican Party’s chief architects of the eight-year effort to stifle any positive policy initiatives of the Barack Obama presidency and now an apparent cheerleader for right-wing policies of the Trump administration, worked that night. However, the reputation of the US Senate was seriously bruised, with the spectacle of the silencing of a woman Senator, the suppression of a letter from the widow of a civil rights icon and a towering figure herself being disregarded by the Senate as something improper and unclean, and the Old White Men’s Club declaring in full view of the public that its genteel veneer of collegiality was more important than the truth of the racism (and sexism) of some of its members. And the voices of opposition were not finished. The next day, Democratic Senators, along with several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, took to the podium to read more excerpts of Mrs. King’s letter, thus giving Mrs. Warren’s initial speech even more popularity and force than it otherwise would have enjoyed. Undeterred, however, the Senate, dominated by right-wing Republicans, finally voted 52-47 to approve Sessions as the next United States Attorney General on Wednesday, February 8, a not-unexpected follow-up to the equally unseemly 51-50 vote (Vice President Mike Pence broke a 50-50 tie) to confirm charter-school advocate Betsy DeVos, with no real experience in education whatsoever, as Secretary of Education earlier in the week.
The letter from Mrs. King, which pointed out what she saw as a concerted effort to use the power of his office to suppress Afrikan-American voters and violate their rights, was only the most explosive of several allegations leveled against Sessions, which included accusations that he was “anti-immigrant” and “anti-civil rights” (Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois) and comments he was alleged to have made that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) were “in-American” and that the Ku Klux Klan’s most serious fault was that some of them “smoked pot” (Sessions would later claim this was a joke).
Sessions’ resume would seem to be a perfect fit for his name, which, when uttered with an appropriate deep-South drawl, comes across sounding like a classic Confederate character in a slave-era epic. After his failed effort to obtain the federal judgeship under the Reagan administration in 1986, he ran for and won Alabama’s Attorney General seat in 1994, and followed that with a successful run for the US Senate representing Alabama in 1996. And now, with his Senate confirmation, he is will be charge of a Justice Department that traditionally has been expected to defend the same voting rights his critics insist he has made much of his career attacking.
Mrs. King’s letter, written at the time to Senate leader Strom Thurmond (and which Thurmond would either fail or rather sneakily refuse to place in the official Senate record at the time), became a heavily-trending topic as the US Senate hearings into his nomination as Attorney General came to a close. It reads as follows:
Dear Senator Thurmond:
I write to express my sincere opposition to the confirmation of Jefferson B. Sessions as a federal district court judge for the Southern District of Alabama. My professional and personal roots in Alabama are deep and lasting. 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.
I regret that a long-standing commitment prevents me from appearing in person to testify against this nominee. However, I have attached a copy of my statement opposing Mr. Sessions’ confirmation and I request that my statement as well as this be made a part of the hearing record.
I do sincerely urge you to oppose the confirmation of Mr. Sessions.
Sincerely,Coretta Scott King
The case to which Mrs. King was referring is that of what came to be known as the “Marion 3”:
In 1985, when he was U.S. Attorney in Mobile, Sessions’ office brought indictments over allegations of voter fraud in a number of Black Belt counties, an area in Alabama named for the color of the soil but with a majority black population. In Perry County, Sessions’ office charged three individuals with voting fraud, including Albert Turner, a long-time civil rights activist who advised Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and helped lead the voting rights March in Selma on March 7, 1965, known as “Bloody Sunday” after state troopers and a local posse attacked the protestors.
Prosecutors alleged that Turner, his wife Evelyn, and activist Spencer Hogue altered ballots for a Sept. 1984 primary election.
That was an excerpt from a USA Today article, Black Belt voter fraud case in Alabama shaped Sen. Jeff Sessions’ career (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2016/11/18/black-belt-voter-fraud-case-alabama-shaped-sen-jeff-sessions-career/94088186/).
An article by Albert Turner’s wife Evelyn Turner, titled “I tried to help black people vote. Jeff Sessions tried to put me in jail” (the full article, with more details about her case and her concerns about what will come under a Sessions-led Department of Justice, can be read at http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2017/02/07/jeff-sessions-marion-three-alabama-voter-fraud-evelyn-turner-column-voices/97572474/) tells of her ordeal in Alabama as Sessions prosecuted her, her husband and Spencer Hogue:
So, this is the man now entrusted with running the US Department of Justice. We shall soon see what his idea of “justice” truly is. Meanwhile, activists across the country are preparing for the storm. Black people had better get ready.