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As I have noted before on this blog, I lived in the Mobile, Alabama area from 1977 to 1981. Back in that time period, Jeff Sessions was Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama and was considered reactionary even by many wealthy conservatives. Things did not get better with time with Sessions. While I was still living in Mobile, a 19 year old black man named Michael Donald was murdered in what was the last recorded lynching in the United States. Several Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members beat and killed Michael Donald, and hanged his body from a tree. Session's office did not prosecute the case, but both men were arrested and convicted. Subsequently, due to the efforts of Thomas Figures, the Assistant U.S. Attorney in Mobile, FBI agent James Bodman, and Michael Figures, a state senator and civil rights activist, the killers were ultimately arrested over two and a half years after the murder and were prosecuted, with one receiving the death penalty.After dropping the ball on the Donald case, Sessions prosecuted three black community organizers in the Black belt of Alabama, including Martin Luther King Jr.'s former aide Albert Turner, for voter fraud, alleging tampering with 14 absentee ballots. The prosecution stirred charges of selective prosecution of black voter registration. The defendants, known as the Marion Three, were acquitted of all charges by a jury.
Fast forward to this week and hearings on the nomination of Sessions to the office of Attorney General of the United States are taking place (sadly, Senate Republicans confirmed him). During the hearings Senator Elizabeth Warren sought to read into the Senate record a 1986 letter written by Coretta Scott King (see the image above) who, based on the facts recited above, held Sessions in low regard. Mitch McConnell, among the most despicable and hypocrisy filled members of the Senate invoked an arcane Senate rule to silence Warren. A piece in Slate makes the case that McConnell - who clearly hates Warren - was most motivated by his desire to muzzle the words of Coretta Scott King. Here are article highlights:
By design, the U.S. Senate is a deliberative body in which members have every opportunity to speak their minds on the subject at hand. There are exceptions tied to decorum: Attack or impugn a colleague and the chamber reserves the right to strip speaking privileges from the offending member. On Tuesday night, it did just that to Elizabeth Warren. . . . This extraordinary step was initiated by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader. What did Elizabeth Warren say? How did she “impugn the motives and conduct” of the senator from Alabama? She read a letter. Specifically, Warren read from a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the subject of then–federal prosecutor Jeff Sessions, submitted in opposition to his nomination for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama. It was because of the letter that McConnell sought to silence Warren. And it’s in revisiting that letter that we can see how McConnell was right to be shook. Not because King was mistaken, but because her 30-year-old indictment of Jeff Sessions is now an indictment of the entire Republican Party. In Sessions, King saw a throwback to the Jim Crow officials who fought to disenfranchise black Americans throughout the South. “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge," wrote King in her 10-page statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which ultimately rejected Sessions in a 10–8 vote with two Republicans joining eight Democrats in voting against Ronald Reagan’s nominee. “Mr. Sessions’ conduct as U.S. Attorney, from his politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights law, indicates that he lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge.” King went on to describe Sessions’ role in pursuing and prosecuting a trio of black voting rights activists in Perry County, Alabama:
“Mr. Sessions sought to punish older black civil rights activists ... who had been key figures in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. These were persons who, realizing the potential of the absentee vote among Blacks, had learned to use the process within the bounds of legality and had taught others to do the same. The only sin they committed was being too successful in gaining votes.”
King detailed clear abuses of authority, from selective prosecution—ignoring allegations of similar behavior by whites—to pressuring and intimidating witnesses. “Many elderly blacks were visited multiple times by the FBI who then hauled them over 180 miles by bus to a grand jury in Mobile when they could more easily have testified at a grand jury twenty miles away in Selma. These voters, and others, have announced they are now never going to vote again,” King wrote.
For McConnell and his Republican colleagues, King’s critique of Sessions’ work was a personal attack. He saw this well-grounded accusation of racism as worse than the actions it described. And so he called for silence.
Despite the pivotal role the letter played in Sessions’ confirmation hearing in 1986, the then-chair of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, never entered it into the congressional record. Now that we have the letter, however, we can see how relevant it is not just to Sessions’ bid for the attorney general’s office but as a judgment on the Republican Party as a whole.