Jeff Sessions praised black history while rolling back civil rights protections

He was once considered too racist to be a federal judge.

Jeff Sessions makes first speech as Attorney General. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Jeff Sessions makes first speech as Attorney General. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has a history of opposing laws and policies that would benefit black people. But that didn’t stop him from headlining the Justice Department’s Black History Month celebration Tuesday morning.

During his speech, Sessions praised decades of progress for black Americans and credited the department for assisting their advancement in society. He discussed the racism he witnessed growing up in Alabama, and said “black history is American history.”

“Equal justice must prevail in every corner of this nation,” he said according to prepared remarks. “There remains, of course, much to be done. We must also know that real reconciliation goes beyond law. It lives in the heart and the soul — as Lincoln and Dr. King so well knew.”

But there is little evidence to suggest that Sessions is an ally to black people.

Civil rights activist and wife of Martin Luther King Jr. Coretta Scott King once wrote a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee about how disastrous Sessions would be as a federal judge in Alabama, based on his attacks on black voters.


“Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship,” she wrote. “In fact, Mr. Sessions sought to punish older black civil rights activists, advisers and colleagues of my husband, who had been key figures in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.”

Indeed, Sessions prosecuted civil rights activists who had registered black absentee voters in the 1980s. When those voters influenced local elections, Sessions accused the activists of voter fraud and called for an FBI investigation in 1984.

In 1985, Sessions was ultimately considered too racist to be a federal judge, based in part on his prosecution of that witch hunt. Allegations that he called his black assistant “boy,” said the NAACP was “un-American,” and told a white civil rights lawyer that he was a “disgrace to his race” also played a role.

Thereafter, he regularly blocked black judges from sitting on federal benches in his role as an Alabama senator.

“The senator has a problem putting African Americans on the federal bench in Alabama,” Birmingham attorney John Saxon told Mother Jones. “And the people need to know that.”


More recently, as Attorney General, Sessions has shown little movement on voting rights. On Monday he reversed the Justice Department’s position that a strict voter ID law in Texas discriminates against voters of color — a stance that a notoriously conservative federal appeals court agreed with.

He also questioned the validity of Justice Department investigations of police departments that routinely brutalize black people. On Monday, the Huffington Post asked if he had read some of the investigations, and he implied that they do not raise valid concerns, even though he hasn’t read them.

“I have not read those reports, frankly,” he said. “We’ve had summaries of them, and some of it was pretty anecdotal, and not so scientifically based.”

Sessions is also opposed to bipartisan criminal justice reforms, including sentencing that would drastically reduce the black prison population. He is a staunch supporter of civil asset forfeiture, which strips people of their property and disproportionately impacts black people and Latino Americans. And he’s close to cracking down on states where marijuana use is legal.

“So let’s do our jobs. Let’s fulfill our duty,” reads his Black History Month speech. “And, as we do so, let us perform in a way that builds harmony, unity and justice.”