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How the NAACP Hopes to Take Jeff Sessions to Task Over His Alleged History of Racism

Protestors staged a sit-in this week at the senator’s office in Alabama.

By Brandon Tensley


(Photo: Cornell William Brooks/Twitter)

You have to pick your battles. And it’s for good reason that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has squared up for a particularly public one with Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions.

Around 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, some dozen protesters, including NAACP President Cornell William Brooks, staged a sit-in at Sessions’ office in Mobile, Alabama, as part of a string of demonstrations and press conferences that NAACP chapters held across the state.

Their reason?

“As a matter of conscience and conviction, we can neither be mute nor mumble our opposition to Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions becoming Attorney General of the United States,” Brooks said in a statement. “Senator Sessions has callously ignored the reality of voter suppression but zealously prosecuted innocent civil rights leaders on trumped-up charges of voter fraud.”

Protesters occupied the office until Tuesday evening, when they were arrested.

President-elect Donald Trump tapped Sessions as his nominee for attorney general in November — a move that kicked up immediate outrage. Despite unconvincing claims from his spokespeople that Sessions has been good for maligned and marginalized communities, facts — by any metric — say otherwise. For instance, Sessions has the distinction of being called “the most anti-immigrant senator in the chamber,” and, in 1996, he launched a campaign to block an LGBTQ conference from taking place on the University of Alabama’s campus.

With unwavering fervor, Session has long opposed safeguarding the votes of black Americans.

But there’s another reason Sessions is facing such unique opposition from the NAACP in his home state, and it’s something that’s easy to spot: With unwavering fervor, Session has long opposed safeguarding the votes of black Americans. Take how he dubbed the Voting Rights Acts of 1965 — arguably the crown jewel of civil rights legislation from the 1960s — “intrusive” because of a section guaranteeing voting protections for blacks in mainly Southern states with long histories of racial discrimination. Indeed, Sessions is hardly a stranger to being taken to task over his penchant for racism-tinged political posturing. Even in 1986 — at the peak of the government’s war on drugs that was cleaving black communities into pieces — Sessions was already considered too racist for a federal judgeship because of allegations of racism, as well as Sessions’ part in prosecuting a case of voter fraud against black civil rights activists in the state.

The bitter irony of this, of course, is that Sessions hails from Selma, a city with a barbed legacy of silencing black voices and votes — but also a history of resilient civil rights activism. And as attorney general, Sessions would head the Department of Justice, which calls the shots on federal voting rights regulations. This is rightly terrifying to those who, for decades, have risked it all to dismantle hierarchies that have kept blacks in the underclass.

“In the midst of rampant voter suppression, this nominee [Sessions] has failed to acknowledge the reality of voter suppression while pretending to believe in the myth of voter fraud,” Brooks said, referring to conservative complaints about “rigged elections,” despite almost zero supporting evidence.

University campuses, too, are becoming centers of resistance. Also on Tuesday, a group of about 1,100 law school professors wrote a letter to Congress, calling on the Senate to reject Sessions’ nomination for attorney general.

It’s true that the NAACP is pursuing its protests in hopes that Sessions’ nomination for attorney general will be withdrawn. But the civil rights group is also deeply aware of the longer-term power of public protest — a tactic tightly stitched into the NAACP’s DNA, and one that any black person in this country can understand. So while I don’t know what concrete change might emerge from this latest political action, what I do know, from the sense of perspective and proportion tethered to the black experience, is that Alabama’s NAACP is reminding us, in a very potent way, of our country’s political lineage: That even if this one action doesn’t prevent this one appointment, it shines a light on what organizing under Trump might look like, especially among people of color.