The complicated life of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III

Jeff Sessions’ uneasy history with race can be traced back to the long, winding roads that cut through the pine forests and farmland in this deep corner of the Deep South.

As a boy, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III began each day before dawn, boarding a segregated bus to his all-white school. En route he and his classmates passed the bus ferrying blacks students in the opposite direction.

The day ended when he sat down to dinner each night with his father, an avowed segregationist. 

Reflecting on those years, Sessions acknowledged recently that he knew back then that segregation was morally wrong and regretted standing by passively as civil rights leaders in the 1960s struggled and died in the fight for equality.

“I should have stepped forward more and been a leader and more positive force,” Sessions said in February while participating in a ceremony honoring the Selma “foot soldiers.”

Yet despite efforts to leave the past behind and even recast himself as something of a civil rights advocate in the face of opposition to his expected nomination to lead the Justice Department under Donald Trump, Sessions has not been able to shake questions about his views and positions on racial matters. 

Particular attention has focused on his early years growing up in Alabama and starting his career as a U.S. attorney. After becoming Alabama’s top law enforcement officer, he had his first opportunity to exercise prosecutorial discretion and was accused of using it in a way that adversely affected minorities. 

Those decisions will take center stage in coming weeks when the Senate Judiciary Committee holds confirmation hearings into the 69-year-old Alabama senator’s record. The same committee in 1986 rejected Sessions’ nomination by President Reagan for a federal judgeship, in part because Justice Department colleagues alleged he had made racially insensitive comments.

The issue of race, especially in the South, is painful, contentious, and sometimes nuanced. By all accounts, Sessions has enjoyed lifelong friendships with African Americans, is respected by former black employees and has even earned recent praise from a top black state legislator.

Even so, the conservative Republican’s policy positions, decisions as a prosecutor and racially tinged comments have led many civil rights advocates to fear how he would enforce the nation’s anti-discrimination laws.

“The bad outweighs the good when we look at his overall record,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. 

Civil rights advocates say Sessions recently tried to paper over his record by taking credit —  in his Senate confirmation questionnaire to join Trump’s Cabinet — for bringing anti-discrimination lawsuits as a U.S. attorney in Alabama, despite having done little work personally on the cases. Trump transition officials concede Sessions didn’t prepare or lead the lawsuits, but fully supported them.

Sessions’ perceptions about race were forged as a boy, growing up in the northern section of then-segregated and sparsely populated Monroe County, best known for its high number of lynchings and being the birthplace of Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a seminal novel dealing with race and justice. 

Sessions, who was named after the president of the Confederacy and a confederate general, has largely avoided discussing his upbringing or his father’s views, even with some of his closest friends, both in childhood and as an adult.

“It’s just not something we talk about or talked about,” said Ralph Reaves, a friend from his grade school and high school days. “It just was what it was.” 

That period also marked the start of Sessions’ embrace of conservatism and the Republican Party, fueled by a high school teacher who encouraged the promising student to read National Review. It was a time when the GOP — the party of Lincoln — had few supporters in the South. During the 1964 presidential campaign, the family’s pickup truck notably featured a bumper sticker backing Republican nominee Barry Goldwater.

He excelled at Huntingdon College, a small Methodist school in Montgomery, Ala., where he was a member of the Young Republicans Club and president of the student government. Though his class of 1969 included the first black student and was located near the epicenter of many civil rights protests, classmates say race and discrimination were rarely discussed.

“It was just something our parents had done,” said Jack Mooresmith, a Huntingdon classmate. “But my generation didn’t believe in it and nobody paid any attention to it.”

Thinking he might want to be an educator, Sessions spent his first year after graduation teaching the sixth grade at a small black public school in Montgomery.

“It was the end of segregation, but there were still some schools that were virtually all African American,” Sessions told the Washington Examiner in 2009. “I think my class was all African American. I really worked hard at it, but I’m afraid I learned as much as my students.”

In the fall of 1970, he enrolled at the University of Alabama Law School, which had integrated just a year earlier. Within his first few weeks at school he befriended Donald Watkins, a black classmate. Watkins still warmly recalls how Sessions was one of the few white students who welcomed him with a handshake and smile.

“He was literally the second white person to speak to me,” said Watkins, who went on to become a civil rights lawyer. “He acknowledged my humanity. When somebody is nice to you, when you can walk down the hall and [other] people are referring to you [with racial slurs] and somebody was treating you with decency, that was huge in 1970.”

Two years after graduation, Sessions joined the eight-lawyer U.S. attorney’s office in Mobile, Ala. He was tapped by Reagan in 1981 to be the region’s U.S. attorney and earned a reputation for taking on public corruption cases and fighting drug trafficking, according to those who worked with him.

But he was also blasted by black leaders for indicting three civil rights workers on voter fraud charges. The “Marion Three,” as they became known, were acquitted, casting a shadow on Sessions’ decision to prosecute. 

Reagan nominated Sessions in 1985 to be a federal judge, but the confirmation ran into trouble when fellow Justice Department lawyers alleged he had made racially insensitive remarks. He was accused of agreeing with a statement by a judge that a white attorney was a “disgrace” to his race for handling civil rights cases. A black prosecutor also alleged that Sessions referred to him as “boy.”

Sessions denied making the comments or said he could not recall them, though he did admit to cracking a joke about how he had lost respect for the Ku Klux Klan when he learned its members smoked marijuana. 

J. Gerald Hebert, one of the Justice Department lawyers who testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that Sessions had called the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and American Civil Liberties Union “un-American.” The reason, Hebert said in a deposition, was because Sessions believed the groups were forcing civil rights “down the throats of people who were trying to put problems behind them.”

Sessions said the comment was taken out of context and that he was referring to how some people might feel about the groups getting involved in unrelated issues such as foreign policy. The NAACP, he testified, runs into trouble when “it gets outside of legitimate civil rights issues and involved in political issues not related to civil rights.”

Hebert told the committee that he considered Sessions to be a friend and that the prosecutor’s office had fully cooperated with his investigations, even in cases that were “highly sensitive and very controversial and, quite frankly, unpopular” in his district.

Today Hebert says he does not believe Sessions “is qualified to be attorney general” because “anytime he has had prosecutorial discretion, he seems to have abused it rather than used it in an evenhanded way.”

Democrats were joined by two Republicans on the Judiciary Committee in rejecting Sessions’ nomination by a vote of 10 to 8, only the second time in five decades it had taken such action against a judicial candidate.

The rebuke stung, and Sessions told friends he felt he was unfairly labelled a a bigot.

“He was upset, but he told me that he knew who he was and he wasn’t going to let this define him. He knew it was all political,” said Larry Thompson, an African American fellow U.S. attorney and future deputy attorney general who roomed with Sessions on several occasions when they attended training sessions or meetings.

Sessions soldiered on as U.S. attorney under President George H.W. Bush. He left the office in 1993 and briefly worked in the private sector before being elected state attorney general in 1994, beating an incumbent Democrat.

During his two-year tenure, Session took numerous positions that were assailed by black leaders and civil rights advocates. He unraveled a court settlement reached under his predecessor that would have put more black judges on the state appeals court.

He fought a court order mandating more equitable funding of the state’s public schools, a decision that had been hailed as a way to boost education spending in poor black jurisdictions.

And he launched investigations of voter fraud in several majority-black counties that drew comparisons from civil rights leaders to his earlier prosecution of the Marion Three. He was accused by some African Americans of initiating a “politically and racially motivated witch hunt,” according to a 1995 Birmingham News article.

The allegations of voter fraud were jointly investigated with federal prosecutors and eventually resulted in voter fraud convictions or guilty pleas involving 11 people, including a county commissioner and his political aide, all African American.

In 1996, he set his sights on Congress, and campaigned to replace retiring Sen. Howell Heflin, a Democrat who had voted against Sessions’ nomination to the federal bench.

Sessions won and has served in the Senate ever since. He has earned a reputation for being one of the Senate’s most conservative members, particularly on immigration policy, criminal justice matters and gay rights. 

“We both came from the same place, and we are all products of our environment, in some respect, but it is very complicated,” said Joe Whatley, who grew up near Sessions and fought the then-attorney general in court over civil rights matters.

“Lots of conservative Republican policies have an adverse impact on African Americans. I suspect there are a lot of African American people that Jeff Sessions likes very much, and those that like him very much. But like I said, it is very complicated.”

del.wilber@latimes.com

Follow @delwilber on Twitter

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
45°