“When it comes to upholding basic human and civil rights, he has failed to do so at every juncture”
Senator Jeff Sessions testifies in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the first hearing to examine whether or not they will confirm President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Sessions to attorney general.
“All of America is about to be subject to Alabama justice.” That’s the take of Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries and one of many Alabamans fighting the nomination of their Senator, Jeff Sessions, for attorney general. These community leaders love their state, but don’t want to see its record on justice extended to the rest of the country. As the Senate Judiciary Committee questions Sessions on his new role, we spoke with Alabama advocates for education and civil, immigrant, worker, and LGBTQ rights about what life has been like for 35 years of Sessions’ tenure—and their expectations about what America would be like if he serves as the country’s top law enforcement official.
Bernard Simelton, Harvest, Alabama
President, Alabama NAACP
Simelton was arrested in last Tuesday’s sit-in at Sessions’ district office in Mobile. The protest was organized to make a statement, as Simelton has had difficulty when trying to meet with Sessions to discuss policy for years. Alabama NAACP delegations have secured several appointments to meet with Sessions in Washington, D.C., but he has never been available when they have arrived.
“We have not had a voice with him,” says Simelton:
We’re very concerned that he will reverse advances we’ve made in civil rights, voting rights, and human rights. As one example, we have a lawsuit in the works to strike down Alabama’s voter ID law—as those in Texas and North Carolina have been. We’re afraid that if Sessions is confirmed, those efforts will be met with stiff resistance.
Sessions once called the NAACP “un-American.” We were registering people to vote—doing our civic duty. Now (we) have a new president who has essentially denounced the intelligence agencies that he’ll be overseeing, saying he doesn’t believe their information. How can Sessions call our work un-American and stay silent when Trump is speaking against everything from American policy to the U.S. intelligence community? If anything, Trump should be called un-American, not the NAACP.
Vivianna Rodriguez, Mobile, Alabama
Board member, Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice; activist
In 2011, Alabama passed HB 56, the most draconian immigration law in the nation, which encouraged racial profiling, made contracts with undocumented immigrants unenforceable, and required teachers to inquire about their students’ immigration status, among other provisions.
When asked if it was “a bad thing” that many immigrant children had stopped showing up for school out of fear of the law, Senator Sessions said, “It’s a sad thing that we’ve allowed a situation to occur for decades that large numbers of people are in the country illegal, and it’s going to have unpleasant, unfortunate consequences.” Rodriguez is most concerned about Sessions’ approach to immigrants:
I love Alabama, and for it to pass one of the harshest anti-immigration laws in the nation was heartbreaking. Families and friends fled. I would say 75 percent of farmworker families left. Church was empty. People who had good jobs fled, because a family member might have been at risk. For those who didn’t leave, it was a huge stress. I’m a U.S. citizen, but I did so badly in school that semester that I had to write a letter to the dean. My mom is undocumented, and I was so worried because she had to put herself at risk every day, just by going to work, going anywhere.
If a police officer comes by and racially profiles you as an immigrant—basically, somebody who’s brown—you are at risk, because of the color of your skin. Kids were scared to go to school, thinking they would get deported. My sister called me from class one day because she was so scared that my mom wasn’t going to be home when she got off the bus that day because there was a raid. She was seven years old.
Joe Keffer, Montgomery, Alabama
Moral Movement Alabama, retired Service Employees International Union, member Communications Workers of America
Keffer has a long history in the labor movement and he says Sessions has voted against “most of the positive pieces of labor legislation,” including minimum wage increases, rights for immigrant workers, and equal pay initiatives for women like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Sessions has also been a strong supporter of free trade agreements, and, Keffer says, “workers in this state have been decimated by trade agreements,” which means:
Senator Sessions hasn’t been good for working people in this state. He hasn’t taken affirmative actions that would really help people. The fear, based on his record, is that he’s going to crack down on civil rights, on people of color, on people protesting. On cases like strike actions—the attorney general may not get directly involved, but if he’s cracking down on protests … a strike is a protest. Protecting the interests of the wealthy and corporations, and not those of workers, will be his priority—protecting property values rather than people’s rights.
Henry “Hank” Sanders, Selma, Alabama
Sanders was first elected state senator in 1983. He testified in Sessions’ failed 1986 bid for a federal judgeship—a nomination that was rejected because Sessions was essentially deemed too racist. At the end of an unrelated meeting with Sessions last year, Sanders says Sessions mentioned how Sanders had testified against him in 1986. “This was thirty years ago, and he seemed to still be holding that against me,” says Sanders:
He’s been against civil and voting rights for his entire career. It’s my understanding that as U.S. senator, if anyone with civil rights activity in their background came up for a federal judge appointment, he automatically opposes their nomination. How can he possibly enforce civil rights; how can he enforce voting rights, when he has been opposed to them in every way?
John Zippert, Eutaw, Alabama
Co-publisher and editor, Greene County Democrat
Besides publishing the local weekly newspaper, Zippert has been active in civil rights work for decades, including voting rights and advocacy for black farmers. His view of Sessions as a senator is dim:
When Senator Richard Selby comes to Greene County, he holds meetings in a public place. Sessions meets in the homes of Republican officials and sympathizers. It’s difficult for me to go to the private home of some white person in Greene County to be able to question my Senator. He meets in public places in north Alabama, where he has a lot of support, but hasn’t met in public places in the Black Belt, where he knows he has opposition.
And as attorney general, Zippert expects that Sessions will be bad news for agitators:
He may go after activists. I’m concerned about 501(c)3 organizations that have a progressive political position as a part of their overall social change agenda. The Trump administration, and Sessions particularly, may come after 501(c)3 tax exemptions. Breitbart often used that as a part of its attacks. With Steve Bannon, formerly of Breitbart, as a top advisor, that’s likely to be part of their overall policy approach.
As senator, Sessions has a decidedly anti-LGBTQ voting record, including opposition to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; opposition to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act; and opposition to the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in hate crime provisions. Wetli calls Sessions’ tenure “horrifying” for LGBTQ people in Alabama:
When it comes to upholding basic human and civil rights, he has failed to do so at every juncture. In the LGBTQ community, people are afraid, not so much of what he will do, but what he won’t do. The Attorney General has discretion on which cases to prosecute; there’s a fear that he may not uphold the law, by abstention from prosecuting cases. Our agency provides services to victims of violence, and we worry what will happen if hate crimes and other discrimination aren’t prosecuted.
The discrimination has economic impacts: part of Sessions’ legacy is that companies look twice before coming to Alabama. Why would you want to want to come to a state with such a record of voting against equal rights?
Terri Michal, Birmingham, Alabama
Director, Support Our Students
As Alabama attorney general, Sessions led the battle against a court order for the state to remedy a long history of unequal school funding that has led to de facto segregated schools. Ultimately, the solution was left to a conservative legislature, and Alabama schools rank near the bottom nationally. Recently, comments by Sessions in 2000 have come to light that blame special-needs students for “accelerating the decline in civility and discipline in classrooms all over America.”
With all the privatization and movement towards charter schools, our schools are being resegregated. High poverty kids and students of color are the ones most impacted. When it comes down to questions of whether a child’s civil rights are being violated because of unequal schooling and privatization, I don’t see that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going to stand up for these students. There’s such propaganda out there saying that school reform is what our high-poverty students and children of color need. He acts like he believes all of that propaganda, so I don’t believe that he’ll have the full picture about any decisions that come to him about education.