Calling Jeff Sessions "racist" conveniently ignores the work he's done for Alabama's black community

Lowndes County, Alabama, needed help, and Sessions came through. Liberal critics need to give him credit

Published December 1, 2016 12:59PM (EST)

Jeff Sessions   (Getty/Mark Wilson)
Jeff Sessions (Getty/Mark Wilson)

As liberal pundits continue their drumbeat against President-elect Trump, they have targeted some of his Cabinet selections, including Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Some of the attacks against Sessions hinge on hearsay from decades-old conversations that included racist terms.

If Sessions did use this language, it would obviously be reprehensible. But disqualifying Sessions based on these words alone would ignore the hard work Sessions has done for more than 15 years to uplift the poor and vulnerable.

If liberals like to claim that they don’t think in simple black-and-white terms, perhaps they would consider the important work Sessions has done for the past decade and a half with Bob Woodson, an African-American community leader awarded a MacArthur fellowship (commonly known as a "genius grant") and the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush.

I’ve worked with Woodson over the past couple of years, including appearing with him on MSNBC’s "Morning Joeto discuss his work with House Speaker Paul Ryan in the "Comeback" series at Opportunity Lives. Woodson told Salon that he first met Sessions in 2001 when Catherine Flowers, a community leader working to salvage her rural Alabama community in crisis, came to his Washington office at the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (formerly CNE, now known as The Woodson Center) to ask for help.

According to Woodson, the most pressing issue facing Flowers' community involved 37 families facing arrest or eviction following the issuing of health regulation violations when officials discovered raw sewage flowing above ground on their property. These residents desperately wanted a solution to the threat to their well-being and their children’s health, but the $12,000 required to install septic tanks was hopelessly beyond reach. (This was in a community where the average income was $20,000, the poverty rate above 30 percent and families live in dilapidated trailers.)

Flowers lived in Lowndes County, where are 75 percent of the residents are African-American (according to current census data), with more than 30 percent of the population living in poverty. Its location, however, is symbolically rich, as it stretches across 43 miles of the 54-mile 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. For the past 50 years, Woodson told me, “purported spokespersons of the black community have conducted annual parades through the route to commemorate the march. But it seemed that they never looked left or right to witness the poverty that surrounded them. They certainly took no effort to alleviate it."

Woodson said that in addition to the waste disposal crisis, the community had "no public recreation facilities for youth, no public library, and the county’s schools were heated by dust-spewing coal furnaces and lacked wiring sufficient to support computers and Internet access." He described a lack of economic development and "dismal" opportunities for employment.

"Yet at the end of each annual parade, the leaders typically returned to their speaking engagements and elected official posts, putting thoughts of Lowndes County aside to the following year," Woodson added. "Many would be among the cohort to rail against Sen. Session’s recent appointment. Yet, where they did nothing, Sen. Sessions stood up and took action and marshaled support to revitalize the desolate community.”

Sessions intervened to move a congressional appropriation from the Environmental Protection Agency to provide funds for septic tank installments in Lowndes County, joining with CNE to meet with Household International (now HSBC-North America) and Citigroup, which found private-sector consultants who worked to tackle the immediate problem of waste management and launch a five-year initiative to promote economic development, provide financial literacy training and create housing opportunities. Woodson shared all this in testimony before the Senate Budget Committee.

When the Hyundai Corp. built a $1 billion manufacturing plant just 6 miles from the Lowndes County border, Woodson pointed out that Sessions recognized the prospects for manufacturing suppliers and worked to secure $4 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce and Economic Development that made possible the construction of two industrial parks for second-tier auto suppliers.

In 2004 Sessions also hosted a meeting on Capitol Hill that brought 100 corporate and policy representatives to learn about the Alabama Rural Initiative that Flowers had helped organize. Woodson said that as a result of that meeting, Microsoft donated more than $65,000 worth of software to equip computer centers for the low-income residents of Lowndes County. U.S. Department of Labor staff who attended the event encouraged the Alabama Rural Initiative representatives to apply for a planning grant for a Career Development Workforce Center in the county. The grant was received in 2005 and a comprehensive plan was developed so that workforce preparation, adult remedial education and legal assistance initiatives in Lowndes County could offer residents a road out of poverty.

Sessions’ support for Lowndes County also included efforts to preserve its historical legacy. When he received a letter demanding that Alabama’s Interpretive Center along the Selma-Montgomery March trail be closed, charging that it was “an orgy temple of hate,” Sen. Sessions toured the center’s exhibits with Flowers and declared that “everyone should know this history.” He was instrumental in transferring the authority for the Interpretive Center from the state of Alabama to the National Park Service, where it will be preserved in perpetuity.

Liberals, with self-righteous hypocrisy who are opposing the appointment of Sessions as attorney general, would do well to consider the words of President Barack Obama in his eulogy for Sen. Robert Byrd, a Democrat and former member and recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan: “We know there are things he said and things he did that he came to regret. . . .  As I reflect on the full sweep of his years, it seems to me that his life bent towards justice. Like the Constitution he tucked in his pocket, like our nation itself, Robert Byrd possessed that quintessential American quality, and that is a capacity to change, a capacity to learn, a capacity to listen, a capacity to be made more perfect.”

By Carrie Sheffield

Carrie Sheffield is a Salon Talks host, founder of Bold and adviser to Lincoln Network. She previously wrote editorials for The Washington Times, covered politics for POLITICO and The Hill and analyzed municipal credit for Goldman Sachs and Moody's Investors Service.

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