“We are trying to stop Jeff Sessions from becoming the attorney general of the United States,” Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, told AlterNet over the phone. “We are not backing down at all.”
Just days ago, Simelton was one of dozens who staged a sit-in at Sessions’ Mobile, Alabama office, an action timed to coincide with the onset of the 115th Congress. Media attention and support from across the country poured in.
The @NAACP is standing in the best of its 108 year history by opposing Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III. Everyone should join them.
— Greg Carr (@AfricanaCarr) January 4, 2017
Simelton, one of six people arrested for the action, noted that following their release from detention, protesters met at a TGI Fridays restaurant to “plan our next strategy.”
By then, their protest had caught the attention of Sessions’ office, whose spokesperson, Sarah Isgur Flores, smeared the protesters in her comments to the Washington Examiner. "What a sad statement on the left's political reality that they would falsely smear a man's character and reputation as a fundraising gimmick," she said. Flores sent a series of tweets referring to the protesters as “pathetic.”
But Simelton said the response is proof that their protest got under Sessions’ skin. “The statements don’t bother us at all,” he said. “Irrationality is what we expect. They are trying to change the focus from them to us, so that people won’t focus on the things he has done.”
Sessions, a U.S. senator from Alabama, built his national reputation by vociferously opposing civil rights. In the 1984 case now known as the Marion Three, he prosecuted three civil rights workers on baseless charges of voter fraud (all were acquitted), in an effort to intimidate and suppress the black vote. His opposition to voting rights has continued throughout his career, including his support for the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision to gut the Voting Rights Act.
Sessions was appointed by former president Ronald Reagan in 1986 as a federal judge, but rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee — some of them Republicans — on the grounds that he was too racist to serve.
Former Justice Department civil rights lawyer J. Gerald Hebert testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that Sessions had called the NAACP “un-American” and “communist-inspired.” More recently, Hebert told CNN, "Things that I had heard firsthand from him were things that demonstrated gross racial insensitivity to black citizens of Alabama and the United States.”
Thomas Figures, a former assistant U.S. attorney who is African-American, testified that Sessions called him “boy” and joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying he thought they were “okay, until I found out they smoked pot.”
Sessions has been one of the most right-wing members of the Senate, consistently voting for harsh crackdowns on immigrants and punishing austerity measures. In just one example, he supported Alabama’s harsh HB56, described by the ACLU as “an extraordinary attempt to regulate every aspect of the lives of immigrants.”
The first sitting senator to support Trump’s presidential bid, Sessions has expressed his support for a form of torture euphemistically referred to as waterboarding. He was part of a small group of senators who voted against the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, which according to Human Rights Watch, “barred the use of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment against any detainee in U.S. custody and required the Defense Department to follow the U.S. Army Field Manual on Intelligence Interrogations when conducting interrogations.” He also opposed a later anti-torture amendment to the annual defense bill, which passed in 2015.
Writing for the Nation, Ari Berman noted that Sessions, if confirmed Attorney General, will be in charge “of enforcing the civil-rights laws he once opposed, like the Voting Rights Act.”
More than 1,100 law school professors from across the United States registered their opposition to Sessions in an open letter sent Tuesday. "Nothing in Senator Sessions' public life since 1986 has convinced us that he is a different man than the 39-year-old attorney who was deemed too racially insensitive to be a federal district court judge,” they wrote. A petition opposing Sessions has garnered over 200,000 signatures.
“To not support something like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, to not believe that there is voter suppression going on in the United States, to not support the expansion of the Voting Rights act — those are the things the attorney general would be responsible for enforcing,” said Simelton. “This is very urgent, and we want to get the word out to people cross the nation that we here in Alabama are not supporting Sessions for Attorney General. We want people to know what kind of record he has.”