Election 2016

Jeff Sessions, Alabama's Neo-Confederate, Racist, Misogynist, Anti-Immigrant, Obstructionist U.S. Senator Is Named Attorney General

If the past is prologue, civil rights, voting rights and women's rights are all under threat.

Starting last August, Donald Trump taunted black and Latino voters at his mostly white rallies by trashing inner cities and telling them to vote for him. "What do you have to lose?" Trump kept saying.

Now the answer is clear—the gains of the mid-20th-century’s civil rights movement; the reproductive rights movement and the right to legal abortion; this century’s LGBT equality movement; and the hopes of millions of migrants facing forcible deportation are just some of the things people have to lose. And those nightmare scenarios are just the beginning with Trump’s appointment of Republican Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as Attorney General.

Since America is now divided into red and blue states, the classification that began in 2000 and is now seemingly permanent, it is appropriate to use Civil War references when considering the next Attorney General, the ultimate neo-Confederate. The namesake of Sen. Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, the ex-Alabama attorney general, is P.G.T. Beauregard, the general who ordered the attack on Fort Sumter that started the War of the Southern Rebellion. Former Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy said Jeff Sessions demonstrated a "clear and convincing case to gross insensitivity to the questions of race." Sessions once told Gerald Hebert, who today runs the Campaign Legal Center, one of Washington’s best public interest firms, that a white voting rights lawyer was a “disgrace to his race.” 

As Sarah Wildman wrote in the Guardian in 2009, highlighting Sessions’ enlarged role on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he first emerged on the national political stage in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan appointed him as a federal judge and the same committee, including Republican senators, rejected him for being too racist. She continued:

“The young lawyer became only the second man in 50 years to be rejected by the Senate judiciary committee,” Wildman wrote. “The reasons for his rejection… had to do with a soupy mix of dubious and arguably racist moves, comments and motivations on the part of the Alabama native that led Senator Ted Kennedy to announce it was 'inconceivable … that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a U.S. Attorney, let alone a United States federal judge.' Later Kennedy would say the hearings created a 'clear and convincing case to gross insensitivity to the questions of race' on the part of Sessions. His Democratic colleague, Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio, called Sessions a man of ''marginal qualifications who lacks judicial temperament. … A nominee who is hostile, hostile to civil rights organizations and their causes."

Back then Sessions' problems began with a 1984 case known as the Marion 3, in which he prosecuted three civil rights workers over what he perceived as voting fraud. As Harvard Law School’s Lani Guinier noted in her book Lift Every Voice, before 1965 there were "virtually no blacks registered to vote in the 10 western Black Belt counties of Alabama." Sessions didn’t like what was changing with voting rights drives. This was the 1980s, not the 1960s. “Sessions had labeled the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) ‘un-American’ and ‘communist-inspired,’ Hebert testified at those hearings. Hebert said that Sessions argued the groups 'forced civil rights down the throats of people.'"

Fast-forward to the 2016 presidential campaign, where Sessions was one of Trump's early Senate supporters and was eerily in sync with Trump’s repeated claims that unnamed Democrats—people of color living in cities like Philadelphia—were preparing to steal the election from him and GOP vigilante voting posses were needed. Sessions fit right in with Trump’s deliberate rekindling of American white supremacists.   

But Sessions isn’t just a neo-Confederate on matters of race, he is also vehemently anti-choice. In a statement reacting to the appointment, Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said, “The last person women and families need in this job is someone who has repeatedly given a pass to individuals who commit acts of violence against abortion clinics, doesn't take sexual assault seriously, and was determined to be too racist by a GOP-led Senate to become a federal judge. But that's who Jeff Sessions is. His record of misogyny and racism makes him unfit to be the country's top lawyer. The American people deserve far better, but with Donald Trump at the helm, we know we won't get it.”

NARAL’s statement noted Sessions' long anti-choice record. “In the Senate, he repeatedly voted to allow violent, convicted anti-abortion offenders to escape their court-levied fines in bankruptcy, voted against a resolution in support of Roe v. Wade, and voted for the unconstitutional 20-week abortion ban. He has also voted against protections against clinic violence, as well as to defund Planned Parenthood. When President-elect Donald Trump said that he could grab a woman by the p**sy, Jeff Sessions claimed that it was not sexual assault.”

Sessions' first big test is likely to come with Trump’s pledge to deport millions of undocumented migrants, which is in sync with Sessions’ own fervent opposition to any immigration reform. He has been vehemently opposed to any proposal that could be seen as a “path to citizenship” while in the Senate, even though, as the Huffington Post noted, the man who attended “all-white segregated schools” has belatedly said he regrets not getting involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a younger man.

“As a child and a teenager, I saw evidence of discrimination virtually every day,” he said. “Certainly I feel like I should have stepped forward more and been a leader and a more positive force in the great events that were occurring.”

We’ll soon see what great events Sessions will unleash. Don’t be surprised if the past is prologue to the future.

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Steven Rosenfeld is a senior writing fellow of the Independent Media Institute, where he covers national political issues. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).