USA First Look

Why the NAACP president staged a sit-in at Jeff Sessions's office

The peaceful demonstration resulted in the arrest of NAACP President Cornell William Brooks and youth and college director Stephen Green.

Benard Simelton (l.), president of the Alabama NAACP State Conference, Cornell William Brooks (2nd l.), president & chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and Devon Crawford (r.), a fellow with with the NAACP Youth & College Division, occupy the office of Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump's pick for for attorney general, in Mobile, Ala., on January 3, 2017.
Daniel Valentine/Reuters
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The president of the NAACP was arrested Tuesday night after he and other demonstrators staged a sit-in at the office of Sen. Jeff Sessions, according to the NAACP's Twitter account. 

NAACP President Cornell William Brooks and youth and college director Stephen Green were among the protesters handcuffed and taken into police custody in Mobile, Ala., while calling for Senator Sessions to withdraw from the selection process for US attorney general. The incident, which appeared peaceful, was broadcast on Facebook Live by the NAACP around 7:30 pm Eastern time.

"We’re standing in, by sitting in, a long tradition of civil disobedience in this country," Mr. Brooks told Vice News in an interview from Sessions' office. "We need an attorney general who’s going to enforce [the Voting Rights Act] vigorously, unapologetically, and firmly, because there are many politicians in this country who are willing to engage in partisan vote tampering [and] voter suppression in order to achieve electoral results."

Since his nomination by President-elect Donald Trump, Sessions has come under fire for his views on immigration and his opposition to the Voting Rights Act. Allegations of racial bias have clouded Sessions's reputation throughout his career, to the extent that the United States Senate rejected his appointment to a federal district court in 1986 after a black assistant US attorney who worked for Sessions testified that Sessions had called him "boy" on multiple occasions and joked that he thought Ku Klux Klan members were "OK, until he learned they smoked marijuana." 

"He has not been a champion for civil and human rights or been on the battlefront fighting for civil and human rights," Bernard Simelton, the president of the Alabama NAACP State Conference, who also participated in the demonstration Tuesday night, told The New York Times. "We need someone who has a background in that and who will continue to do that."

But some observers say that Sessions's racial history is more complex than his controversial remarks would suggest, as Patrik Jonsson reported for The Christian Science Monitor in November: 

To critics, it’s the return of a cultural hard line on legal issues from abortion to immigration, from legal marijuana to police reform. Senator Sessions, if confirmed by the US Senate, will head a Justice Department that some expect to not just parse federal policy, but to more aggressively enforce it.

The selection of a man who was once denied a federal judgeship – by Republicans – over concerns about racism has raised alarm. On Mr. Trump’s team, he joins special adviser Steve Bannon, former head of a news organization accused of race-baiting and bigotry, and National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who has made inflammatory statements against Islam.

But some caution against jumping to conclusions about Sessions, suggesting that he could be a balancing voice on Trump’s new team. While the concerns about racism are a clear part of Sessions’ record, so is his push to desegregate Alabama schools during his time as a US attorney, as well as his demand for the death penalty for the son of a Klan leader, who had randomly killed a black teen.

"He doesn’t have the kind of hard-line George Wallace-type attitude toward issues of race, though he’s certainly not a progressive, either," Bill Ferris, a professor at the University of North Carolina who worked with Sessions as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, told the Monitor. "I think he is an educated voice that clearly comes out of the South in ways that neither of the Obama or Trump inner circles do." 

Meanwhile, Sessions supporters and spokespeople say that the allegations of racial bias have been blown out of proportion. 

"Many African-American leaders who've known him for decades ... have welcomed his nomination to be the next attorney general," said Sessions spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores in a statement to CNN. "These false portrayals of Sen. Sessions will fail as tired, recycled, hyperbolic charges that have been thoroughly rebuked and discredited."

Brooks and his fellow demonstrators are not alone in pushing back against Sessions's nomination. A number of efforts are underway to oppose the senator, including a #StopSessions hashtag on social media. ColorofChange.org, a civil rights organization, is asking the public to submit questions they would like to hear asked during Sessions's confirmation hearings. And the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is separate from the NAACP, has published fact sheets outlining Session's record regarding civil rights.

"[We're] calling on citizens of this country to not accept as fait accompli the nomination of attorney general," Brooks told USA Today prior to his arrest on Tuesday. "It's not a political coronation, it's a democratic confirmation. We're calling on people to tweet, e-mail, show up at the senator's office and voice their opinion, wisely, thoughtfully."