The complicated racial past of Jeff Sessions

The Senate is holding confirmation hearings Tuesday and Wednesday for Sen. Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump's pick to be attorney general. Critics point to claims of racism, but some also caution against jumping to conclusions.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters/File
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama walks out to introduce Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Everett, Wash., in August.  

Update: This story has been updated Jan. 10.

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a Southern country lawyer turned senator who, according to congressional transcripts, repeatedly referred to a black assistant United States attorney as “boy,” has been chosen by President-elect Donald Trump to replace America’s first female black US attorney general, Loretta Lynch.

The shift in tone and optics couldn’t be starker: 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. Civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D) of Georgia and Sen. Cory Booker (D) of New Jersey are testifying against Sessions. In Senator Booker's case, it is the first time in US history a sitting senator has done so against a colleague.

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’s 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.

“I found him to be a familiar kind of Southern political leader who, while he takes a conservative stand, has a broader vision,” says Bill Ferris, an academic who was awarded the Charles Frankel Prize in the Humanities by President Clinton and worked with Sessions as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He calls Sessions’s selection a “silver lining.”

“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,” says Mr. Ferris, now a professor at the University of North Carolina. “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.”

Shadows of the past

Sessions grew up in the small, mid-Alabama town of Hybart, where his dad owned a country store. Ambitious and smart, he became a country lawyer, then US attorney, Alabama attorney general, then a US senator, finally moving to Mobile. His rise was interrupted, if briefly, in 1986, when President Reagan nominated him to become a federal judge. Sessions was rejected, 10 to 8, by the Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee.

After having called the NAACP “communist-inspired” and working to put voting-rights activists behind bars for life for a fraudulent get-out-the-vote program, it was “inconceivable … that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a US attorney, let alone a United States federal judge,” Sen. Ted Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts said at the time. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D) of Ohio called Sessions “hostile to civil rights organizations and their causes.”

Sessions’s failure set the stage for the rejection of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork a year later – the event that widely seen as beginning the polarization and politicization of the Supreme Court.

Sessions has denied that he harbors any racial animus, saying he sent his children to integrated schools. Policy-wise, though, civil rights laws have in the past troubled him. He has never denied he once called the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a “piece of intrusive legislation.” Sessions also had to apologize for joking that members of the Ku Klux Klan “were OK until I found out they smoked pot.” 

‘Not a mean view’

Today, however, Sessions has bounced back from the 1986 ignominy. Though he often bucks the GOP establishment, especially in taking a hard line on immigration, he is a well-respected senator who now serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee that once turned him down. He has said his “loose tongue” gets him in trouble.

Even critics say he deserves a chance to live down his comments, especially given the rapidity of cultural change in the South and around the country.

Sessions is the embodiment of country aristocracy in rural Alabama, suggests Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

He is “a Southern hard-liner as those exist in 2016. He’s not a 1940s or ’50s pitchfork Ben Tillman. He’s always been a go-slow, you’re-going-too-fast, pushing-too-hard, let-the-change-be-natural messenger to the Southern people.”

“But he’s not evidently a mean-spirited guy,” Professor Jillson adds. “He has a narrow view, but not necessarily a mean view. And that’s what he needs to communicate. His demeanor suggests mean, and he needs to take that edge off as he enters this very important responsibility.”

Contentious confirmation ahead

Concerns abound already, especially after the presidential campaign exposed wrenching cultural tensions in the electorate. To many, the Sessions pick suggests that Trump is “telling the country that he’s serious about what he said during the campaign,” says Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University and author of “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.”

Sessions was the first senator to embrace Trump’s message, saying about Trump’s push to fix US immigration: “He can do it!”

Matt York/AP/File
Sen. Jeff Sessions introduces Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Phoenix in August.

But there are other sides to Sessions, as well. He has in his lifetime witnessed a tight arc of racial reconciliation that has recast many white Southerners and empowered black Southerners. During the 1986 hearing, Larry Thompson, a black US attorney for the northern district of Georgia, testified that Sessions is “a good man and an honest man, untainted by prejudice.”

What's more, Sessions fought in the late 1990s to boost funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, then led by Ferris. He has been praised by moderate South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. Democrats will likely make the confirmation hearing contentious. But it would be unusual for a senator in good standing to be denied a cabinet role.

“Just because someone’s past positions are what they are doesn’t mean that immediately everything is going to change,” says Mr. Kazin at Georgetown.

How he could shape the job

The appointment comes amid several big issues: abortion rights, gay rights, voting rights, immigration enforcement, drug legalization, and also a cultural upheaval over violence between police and unarmed black men.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder and current Attorney General Lynch have made criminal justice reform a major priority in the wake of a wave of violence between police and especially African-American men. Many Department of Justice lawyers are likely to balk at any attempts by Sessions to change that tack, Kazin says. As such, Sessions will likely test how far an agency can swing philosophically in a short period of time.

The Sessions pick is “a classic law-and-order message that goes beyond just immigration,” says Jillson. “It has to do with many of the changes taking place in American society that make conservatives uncomfortable. He’ll be pushing back on those across the board. Immigration will be early and very visible. But if I were out in Colorado and California and owned a pot dispensary, I’d be checking my license.”

For those concerned by Sessions’s pick, “We have to watch charitably but skeptically,” adds Jillson. “You want to see something other than disclaimers like, ‘I’ve grown and I’ve changed.’ You want to see actions that suggest an openness and a comfort with a broader range of people than you normally find outside [Hybart].”

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