Rutecki: Don’t judge Sessions so quickly

Paul Rutecki, Columnist

I was eating breakfast a week before classes started this semester when I turned on the television to check the news and saw the confirmation hearing for Jeff Sessions, then-nominee for Attorney General. I did not know much about Sessions at the time except for reports I heard that he was denied a federal judgeship in 1986 for making racist remarks, amongst other reasons. Of course, I would never support anyone who is a racist, so I became interested in watching the hearing and learning who Jeff Sessions is.

 These remarks are the main reason why some people opposing his nomination have labeled him a racist.  For instance, Sessions made an inappropriate joke about the Klan during the case when he said that he thought Klan members were “OK, until he learned that they smoked marijuana.”  

 The joke was certainly unbecoming, but Jeff Sessions later provided clarification on the matter, stating, “All of us understand that the Klan is a force for hatred and bigotry and it just could not have meant anything else than that under those circumstances.”  Barry Kowalski, a Justice Department attorney working with Sessions at the time, defended him by saying, “He couldn’t have been more supportive of making sure we got convicted the murderers of the last black man who was lynched by the Klan.”

The NAACP has also suggested that Jeff Sessions is racist because of comments he allegedly made in the same 1986 hearing.  Specifically, the organization cites the claims of J. Gerald Hebert, that Sessions told him the NAACP and ACLU were “un-American” and “Communist-inspired.”  Because of Herbert’s testimony and their stance on Sessions’ voting record, the NAACP described Sessions having, “a deeply concerning disregard for civil, human and voting rights….”  Sessions denied these allegations vigorously at the time, proclaiming, “I am not a racist, I am not insensitive to blacks .… I have done my job with integrity, equality and fairness for all.”  The NAACP’s case for Sessions’ being a racist hinges on the validity of Herbert’s words and a bad joke he made in 1986.  On the other hand, Sessions’ defense hinges on what he argues is a lifelong record of advocating for racial equality.  Furthermore, the NAACP’s current opposition to Jeff Sessions is hypocritical, because the NAACP gave Sessions the “Government Award of Excellence” in 2009.  

From watching the hearing, I learned that Jeff Sessions is by no means a racist, but will fight for all Americans. He showed his commitment to ensuring that our sentencing laws are not discriminatory towards any race by joining Democratic congressmen and members of the Congressional Black Caucus in supporting The Fair Sentencing Act.  This law was badly needed because of the racial disparity in crack cocaine sentencing.

CNN reported in 2010 that, “African-Americans have been far more likely than whites and Hispanics to be convicted for—and receive the harsher penalties associated with—possession of crack cocaine, according to government statistics.”  

Former Attorney General Eric Holder rightly praised The Fair Sentencing Act, saying that the bill will, “go a long way toward ensuring our sentencing laws are tough, consistent and fair.”

Sessions also sponsored the first African American member, David Thomas, of the Lions Club in Mobile, Alabama. Lions Clubs are organizations located throughout the world that seek to serve local communities through community service projects.

Thomas’ son, David Thomas II, spoke highly of Jeff Sessions. He said, “From what we have observed over the years, he’s been very fair and judicious in all of his efforts in race relations.”

As a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Jeff Sessions made history by hiring William Smith, the first African American chief counsel on the committee. Smith passionately supported the friend he had known for 20 years in his testimony during Sessions’ confirmation hearing. He stated, “I have reviewed the evidence and even by the lowest standards, anyone looking at the evidence fairly could not say that he is a racist.… I know that he prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan, stood up against George Wallace in Alabama and filed lawsuits to desegregate the schools.”

In 1981, Jeff Sessions prosecuted two members of the Ku Klux Klan who tortured and murdered a black man, Michael Donald. Sessions advocated for the harshest possible punishment, and successfully pushed for one of them to be tried in state court so they could face the death penalty.   

Despite Jeff Sessions’ record of fighting for all Americans, his racist label still sticks.

For example, Representative John Lewis testified against Sessions, “We all live in the same house —the American house. We need someone as attorney general who is going to look out for all of us and not just for some of us.”  

Senator Elizabeth Warren added, “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.”  

These politicians did not care to mention Jeff Sessions’ history of honoring civil rights icon Rosa Parks. They also did not bother discussing the time Sessions successfully called for Parks to receive the Congressional gold medal, or when he attached an amendment in an appropriations bill in the year 2000 that gave $1 million to the Rosa Parks library.

Sessions was confirmed as our next Attorney General earlier this month, on Feb. 8.  He is a good man, who will be the Attorney General for all Americans, not just those who think or look like him.