When President-elect Donald Trump picked Jeff Sessions for attorney general Friday, critics zeroed in on racist remarks Sessions allegedly made decades ago – but the Alabama senator's 20-year history of honoring black civil rights icon Rosa Parks may not square with efforts to paint him as a bigot.
Sessions, 69, who advised Trump on immigration during the campaign, was U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama from 1981 to 1993 before being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1996. He was re-elected to a fourth term in 2014 and is known for his hardline stance on illegal immigration in particular.
However, the pick was immediately blasted by opponents of Trump, who condemned Sessions as a backwards bigot who would harm the causes of immigrants and African-Americans.
“If you have nostalgia for the days when blacks kept quiet, gays were in the closet, immigrants were invisible and women stayed in the kitchen, Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is your man,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill. in a fiery statement Friday.
“Senator Sessions’ record suggests that he will carry on an old, ugly legacy in this country’s history when civil rights for African-Americans, women and minorities were not regarded as core American values,” the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) President and CEO Cornell William Brooks said in a statement.
Critics revisited his failed 1986 nomination to a federal judgeship, which was shut down by the Senate Judiciary Committee after it heard testimony that Sessions had made racist remarks and called the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) “un-American” and “communist-inspired.” His failed prosecution of three civil rights workers on a tenuous case of voter fraud was also raised as a disqualifying issue.
Sessions was also accused of calling an African-American lawyer “boy” and was also alleged to have said Ku Klux Klan members were “okay," until he "learned they smoked marijuana.” Sessions said the comment was made in jest.
Many of Sessions’ modern-day critics have used the controversy to brand Sessions as a racist, with Gutierrez saying Sessions ran for the Senate “because he was deemed by the Senate Judiciary Committee as too racist to serve as a federal judge.”
“Thirty years ago, a different Republican Senate rejected Senator Sessions' nomination to a federal judgeship. In doing so, that Senate affirmed that there can be no compromise with racism; no negotiation with hate,” added Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.
Yet, the narrative of Sessions as an unapologetic racist is complicated somewhat by his repeated advocacy for black civil rights hero Rosa Parks.
In 1999, Sessions called successfully for the Alabama native to be given the Congressional gold medal. In doing so, Sessions made a passionate call for lawmakers to renew the principle of equality under the law.
“As legislators, we should work to strengthen the appreciation for this fundamental governing principle by recognizing those who make extraordinary contributions towards ensuring that all American citizens have the opportunity, regardless of their race, sex, creed, or national origin, to enjoy in the freedoms that this country has to offer,” Sessions said, before calling Parks a “living embodiment of this principle.”
A year later, Sessions attached an amendment to an appropriations bill that gave $1 million to Alabama for the Rosa Parks Library, Museum and Learning Center at Troy State University Montgomery Campus as a way of memorializing the Montgomery Bus Boycott, for which Parks’ protest was the impetus.
In 2005, after Parks’ death, Sessions gave a passionate tribute to her on the floor of the Senate, saying “history will remember Rosa Parks for shaking America's conscience and changing the course of our Nation for the better.”
In 2012, Sessions introduced a resolution to the Senate floor, along with Michigan Democratic senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, to observe the 100th anniversary of Parks’ birth.
“Her courage ignited major changes in our nation and lead a revolution in race relations. Mrs. Parks will always be remembered as a courageous individual, who confronted injustice head-on and, in so doing, changed our nation. Her legacy continues to endure,” Sessions said.
The Trump transition team, responding to the backlash against Sessions, noted Friday both Sessions’ advocacy of Parks, as well as his record as a senator and U.S. attorney in advancing civil rights.
“You know, when Senator Sessions was U.S. attorney, he filed a number of desegregation lawsuits in Alabama and he also voted in favor of the 30-year extension of the Civil Rights Act,” communications director Jason Miller said in a conference call. “He also voted to confirm Attorney General Eric Holder and even spearheaded the effort toward giving the Congressional Gold Medal to Rosa Parks.”
“So we feel very confident that Senator Sessions has the background and the support to receive confirmation,” Miller said.