Sessions’ Civil Rights Record Purposely Overlooked By Detractors

REUTERS/Mike Segar

Sean Reyes Attorney General of Utah
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If we’ve learned anything from Sen. Jeff Sessions’ recent confirmation hearings, it’s that Winston Churchill was right—enemies are good evidence that “you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Senator Sessions’ detractors have blatantly mischaracterized his record of standing up for civil rights as President Reagan’s United States Attorney in southern Alabama and as Alabama’s attorney general. As Utah’s attorney general, I know firsthand the harm that can occur when political enemies mischaracterize a prosecutor’s work. My experience compels me to help set Senator Sessions’ record straight; we cannot afford for his nomination to become prey to those tactics.

Perhaps the most important—and overlooked—story about Senator Sessions’ civil rights record is his indispensable role in breaking the back of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. In 1981, while Senator Sessions was serving as U.S. Attorney, nineteen-year-old Michael Donald was found hanging from a tree in Mobile. Donald—who was black—had been beaten and strangled, and his throat had been cut. Donald’s ignominious murder is the last known public lynching in the United States.

Senator Sessions investigated Donald’s murder tirelessly with the FBI, and with other local and federal prosecutors, until they solved the crime and brought criminal charges against three Klan members. James “Tiger” Knowles pleaded guilty in federal court as an accomplice to a civil rights violation and was sentenced to life in prison. Henry Hays was convicted of murder and was sentenced to death after an Alabama state-court trial, where Senator Sessions shifted the case because the death penalty was not then available under federal law. (Senator Sessions later successfully defended Hays’s murder conviction as Alabama’s attorney general.) And Bennie Jack Hayes—Henry’s father, who had ordered the murder—was convicted in federal court for burning down his house and then attempting to defraud his insurance company to get money for his son’s defense.

Those convictions were critical successes and should suffice by themselves to correct the false narrative about Senator Sessions’ record. But they represent only part of this compelling story. After the criminal trials ended, the Southern Poverty Law Center took the evidence that Senator Sessions and his colleagues had compiled and sued the Klan on behalf of Donald’s surviving family members in a civil case. That case ended with a jury verdict for Donald’s family and a damages award of $7 million—an award so large that it bankrupted the Klan in Alabama.

Senator Sessions thus personally laid the groundwork for the Klan’s demise in his home state. Alabama—and our Country—are indisputably better for it. And yet, in a display of irony possible only in Washington or bad fiction, Senator Sessions’ detractors now try to besmirch him as a racist to derail his appointment as the federal government’s top law enforcement officer. Their claims bear no resemblance to Senator Sessions’ actual decades-long record on civil rights. It’s time for the Senate to lay aside the unsubstantiated allegations and support Senator Sessions based on his demonstrated civil-rights successes—only a small part of which I’ve described here.

But the Senate need not take my word for it. People who know Senator Sessions best—from working with him for years—described during his hearings a record on civil rights amply befitting an Attorney General nominee. Mr. Larry Thompson, a former Deputy Attorney General of the United States (who first met Senator Sessions while both men were serving as U.S. Attorneys); Mr. Jesse Seroyer, an investigator for Senator Sessions in the U.S. Attorney’s office; and Mr. William Smith, Senator Sessions’ former chief counsel—all offered testimony, based on their personal experience, debunking the caricature Senator Sessions’ detractors now try to draw. And all of them happen to be African-Americans.

Their testimony confirms what the objective evidence about Senator Sessions’ record establishes: Jeff Sessions should be confirmed as the next Attorney General of the United States.

Sean Reyes is Attorney General for the state of Utah, he is one of 25 state attorneys general who signed a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsing Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) for Attorney General of the United States.