Amid AG Hearings, Grassley Defends Sessions’ Record on Civil Rights

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Editor’s note, 2/8: On Tuesday night, as a confirmation vote on Jeff Sessions for attorney general drew nearer, Senate Republicans voted to rebuke Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren for reading the letter Coretta Scott King sent to Strom Thurmond in March 1986 opposing Sessions’ nomination to be a federal judge. “The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell alleged before the vote.

The confirmation hearing for Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s pick for attorney general, began Tuesday in the Senate Judiciary Committee headed by Chuck Grassley as civil rights groups continued their pressure to derail the nominee over his views on race. (Grassley has said he’s confident Sessions will be confirmed.)

On the same day, BuzzFeed reported that Martin Luther King Jr.’s late wife, Coretta Scott King, had submitted a letter opposing Sessions’ nomination to be a federal judge in 1986 but that then-Judiciary Committee chairman Strom Thurmond never entered the letter into the congressional record. Sessions was ultimately denied the federal judgeship after accusations that he’d used racial slurs and targeted Alabama civil rights activists through the power of his office, but King’s letter was not made public until the Washington Post obtained it yesterday (the nine-page letter is embedded below). Had it not, BuzzFeed reported, only Grassley would have been able to enter it into the record.

Reached for comment, Grassley spokeswoman Beth Levine disputed BuzzFeed’s claim that only Grassley could have entered the letter into the record. “Actually, any member of the committee has the authority to put something in the record,” she said in an email. “If a member wants to put the late Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter in the record for this hearing, they just have to submit it.”

In the letter, King slammed Sessions for his role in a voter fraud case he prosecuted when he served as US attorney for the Southern District of Alabama. “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters,” she wrote. “For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”

Levine provided the Informer with three additional documents, all embedded below, including a second, shorter letter King wrote to Thurmond three months later that criticized Sessions’ claims to be non-racist by hanging out with black people. “Even during the most difficult days of the civil rights movement, state officials who publicly proclaimed their defiance of federal law often maintained a courteous even cordial attitude towards Blacks in their states,” King wrote. “Whites at times regarded with particular favor Blacks who refrained from pressing for rights to which the white community objected.”

The other documents are statements submitted in defense of Sessions, including one from the son of the couple prosecuted in the voter fraud case King referenced to criticize Sessions. In the letter, the son, Alabama Commissioner Albert Turner, defended Sessions against charges of racism, adding, “I believe him when he says that he was simply doing his job.” The other document is from Fred Gray, an Alabama attorney who has represented MLK Jr. and congratulated Sessions for his “expected nomination.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Grassley questioned Sessions, referring to a case the senator helped prosecute that eventually secured a death penalty conviction for a Klansman in the 1981 killing of a 19-year-old black man.

The case has been used by Republicans to counter charges that Sessions is a racist, as evidenced by the testimony influencing the Judiciary Committee’s decision to deny him the judgeship in 1986.

However, although Sessions has also touted what he has portrayed as his key role in securing the prosecution, the truth is more complicated. He exaggerated his role in the case and later falsely claimed the Klansman had been the leader of the KKK in Alabama. Moreover, an assistant in his office, Thomas Figures, claimed that Sessions “did attempt to persuade me to discontinue pursuit of the case,” saying it was a “waste of time” that “wasn’t going anywhere.”

Levine, Grassley’s spokeswoman, defended Sessions’ role in prosecuting the case. “Mr. Figures’ story has been refuted and discredited numerous times,” she said in an email. “Senator Cruz walked through this case with Senator Sessions during the hearings.” The email included a transcript of Cruz’s questioning of Sessions, during which Cruz mistakenly referred to the murdered teenager, Michael Donald, as “Michael Duncan,” and praised Sessions for the case, blaming the heat he’s taken on internet misinformation.

“It has been very disappointing and painful to have it suggest that I think the Klan was okay when we did everything possible to destroy and defeat and prosecute the Klan members who were involved in this crime,” Sessions told Cruz.

Sessions, who once joked that he thought the KKK “was okay until I found out they smoked pot,” is also a longtime opponent of marijuana law reform, as is Grassley, who once wrote that “illegal drug use costs society at least as much as genocide.”




Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.