Charges of racism against attorney-general designate Jeff Sessions will most likely arise during his Senate confirmation hearings and could add to the growing perception that President-elect Donald Trump is living up to fears that his own racist past is reflected in the team his is building for his upcoming term.
So far, Trump’s selections are are all-white and rabid right-wing — which suggests his promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington means he is draining that swamp into his White House collection of appointees.
Sessions joins Trump’s selection of alt-right extremist Stephen Bannon, who is accused of racism and anti-Semitic statements and actions.
Critics worry that Sessions, derailed when he sought a federal judgeship because of racially-charged allegations against his acts of black-voter intimidation during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, will turn the Justice Department into an operation that will target and harass minorities.
“The American people deserve to learn about Senator Sessions’ record,” says Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Leahy voted against Sessions in hearings for a federal district judgeship in 1986.
“Given some of his past statements and his staunch opposition to immigration reform, I am very concerned about what he would so with the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice,” says incoming Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, on the other hand, offers strong support for Sessions. He called the Republican Senator from Alabama someone who “has worked tirelessly to safeguard the public and improve the lives of Americans from all walks of life.”
Sessions’ record and public statements suggest otherwise.
In his hearing for a federal judgeship he said he felt the Klu Klux Klan was “OK” and only had a problem with them because they smoked marijuana. He has called the NAACP “un-American” and “communist inspired.”
“I filed all these things away thinking, ‘God, what a racist this guy is,’ ” says former Justice Department Lawyer Gerry Hebert, who worked with Sessions in the 1980s.
A different view of Sessions comes form another former Justice Department lawyer, Barry Kowalski, who said the attorney-general nominee, as a U.S. attorney in Alabama, pushed an investigation in 1981 of the murder of Michael McDonald, a black man kidnapped, beaten and hanged by two Klansman who were convicted.
“He couldn’t have been more supportive of making sure we convicted the murderers of the last black man lynched by the Klan,” Kowalski told the Associated Press.
However, Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said pushing such investigations “don’t obliterate the well-established record of hostility to civil right enforcement in other areas.”
Sessions, as a U.S. attorney, focused on voting right cases against black activists and such prosecutions usually led to acquittal in trials. Pursuing such losing cases led to charges Sessions attempted to intimidate black voters.
In 2009, as Senator, Sessions lashed out at the Justice Department for dismissing three defendants from a voting rights lawsuit against the New Black Panther Party but the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility investigated the claim and said Sessions’ claims were groundless.
During the Obama administration, the Civil Rights operation of the Justice Department opened 23 investigations of police departments in Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri, for unconstitutional practices against minorities and won most of them. It sued North Carolina for changes in the voting rights law that barred minority groups from casting ballots.
Is Sessions becomes Attorney General, critics warn, such advances in Civil Rights will cease.
(Eric Tucker and Chad Day of the Associated Press provided some of the information in this article.)
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