Jeff Sessions calls renowned Black Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. “some criminal”

Gates was wrongly arrested in 2009 as he tried to enter his own residence after police received a 911 call

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published July 1, 2020 12:49PM (EDT)

Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr (Getty Images/Salon)
Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr (Getty Images/Salon)

President Donald Trump's former Attorney General Jeff Sessions referred to renowned Black Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. as "some criminal" in an interview with The New York Times Magazine.

Sessions, one of Trump's earliest supporters who was later fired after years of attacks from the president, is currently attempting to reclaim his old Senate seat in Alabama. Sessions has desperately tried to tout his Trumpist credentials on the campaign trail, even as the president has waged a campaign aimed at sabotaging his primary bid.

Sessions attempted to highlight his support for police in the Trump administration in the interview with The Times by alleging that former President Barack Obama was not on the side of law enforcement. He said his mantra at the Justice Department was "back to the men and women in blue."

"The police had been demoralized," he told the outlet. "There was all the Obama — there's a riot, and he has a beer at the White House with some criminal, to listen to him. Wasn't having a beer with the police officers. So we said, 'We're on your side. We've got your back. You got our thanks.'"

The remarks were a muddled reference to the "beer summit" Obama held with Gates and — despite Sessions' claim that Obama did not have beers with officers — the cop who wrongly arrested him for trying to enter his own home. A spokesman for Sessions "declined to elaborate" on whether he was referring to Gates to The Times.

Far from "some criminal," Gates is one of the most prominent Black scholars in the nation. He is the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. "He was awarded a MacArthur Foundation 'Genius Grant' in 1981, was named one of Time magazine's '25 Most Influential Americans' in 1997, has created 15 documentaries based on his scholarship and currently hosts the show 'Finding Your Roots' on PBS," The Harvard Crimson reported.

Gates was wrongly arrested by Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley in 2009 as he tried to enter his residence after police received a 911 call that men were trying to break into the home. Gates had difficulty opening the door and tried to force it open with the help of his driver. Even though it was his own home, Crowley charged Gates with disorderly conduct.

The charges were ultimately dropped, but the incident sparked a nationwide outcry over racial profiling. Obama, then in his first year in office, said the police had acted "stupidly."

"My understanding is that Professor Gates then shows his I.D. to show that this is his house, and at that point, he gets arrested for disorderly conduct, charges which are later dropped," Obama said at the time. "I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that [Gates case]. But I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact."

Obama brought Gates and Crowley to the White House in an effort to calm racial tensions.

"President Obama made an innocent comment that the arrest was stupid, which it was," Gates told The New York Times Magazine earlier this year. "Then all of a sudden all these racists are beating up on him."

Gates told the outlet that the Cambridge police "insisted" that a second white man be present at the meeting. The role ended up falling to former Vice President Joe Biden.

"The Cambridge police had insisted that because there were going to be two Black guys at the table, they wanted two white guys at the table," he said. "They had sent somebody involved in the Cambridge police structure to be there. As we were walking out to the Rose Garden, somehow that guy got pushed to the side, and Joe Biden jumped in the line. That's what nobody ever figured out: Why is Biden at the table? He was there to be the second white guy."

Sessions is running against Trump-endorsed former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville in the state's July 14 primary runoff to face Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., who defeated alleged serial child predator Roy Moore in a special election in 2017.

The Senate rejected Sessions' appointment to a federal judgeship in 1986 over numerous allegations of racism during his time as a U.S. attorney in Alabama.

"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," Coretta Scott King, the widow of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., said in a letter to the Senate at the time. "The irony of Mr. Sessions' nomination is that if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods. I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama but also on the progress we have made toward fulfilling my husband's dream."

Journalist Roland Martin said Sessions' comment about Gates shows "Coretta Scott King was right."

"He has no business," Martin added, "being in the U.S. Senate."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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Aggregate Alabama Barack Obama Donald Trump Henry Louis Gates Jeff Sessions Jr. Politics Racism Republicans