Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III stood atop the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, waiting to march toward Montgomery.
Sessions grasped the hand of the closest man on the front line: the civil-rights activist John Lewis. Behind them, hundreds more demonstrators formed a mighty stream of righteousness.
This, however, was not Bloody Sunday, when Alabama state troopers beat and gassed Lewis and others for asserting their right to vote.
It was March 8, 2015, at a commemoration safely separated by 50 years and a lifetime of history. U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, was one of dozens of elected officials who positioned themselves on the bridge to express solidarity with the cause that powered the original march. Also among them: Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States.
Sessions’ journey to Selma reflects the complicated role of race in his life – and in the South. He is the progeny of the place and time that necessitated legislation guaranteeing basic rights for black Americans. But as President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for attorney general, Sessions would be charged with enforcing those very laws. [Update: Sessions was confirmed as attorney general Feb. 8, 2017. He resigned under pressure from President Trump on Nov. 7, 2018.]
To evaluate the factors shaping Sessions’ approach to the office, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed more than 20 of his acquaintances in a review of his early years, his legal and political careers and a failed judicial nomination. The portrait that emerges is of a Southern man who stayed on the sidelines during the region’s upheaval in the 1960s and beyond, who expressed little discomfort with the segregated society in which he grew up and who affected a willful ignorance of his proximity to an epic struggle over civil rights.
In 1965, when Americans witnessed Bloody Sunday on television, Sessions was a high school senior in a small town 30 miles away. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Sessions’ hometown twice that spring, inspiring voting-rights protests that the police quashed with tear gas, smoke bombs and night sticks. Yet, Sessions has claimed to have been unaware of both the demonstrations and the violence.
That fall, he enrolled in a Montgomery college untouched by protests for civil rights or against the Vietnam War. “We … march on the dining hall,” the campus newspaper declared during his junior year.
Later, as a federal prosecutor, Sessions jokingly praised the Ku Klux Klan, disparaged the NAACP, and allegedly addressed a black assistant as “boy.” (Sessions has always denied the latter claim.) He also prosecuted one of the leaders of the original Selma march on vote-fraud charges; the trial ended with a quick acquittal.
Even after two decades in the Senate, Sessions provokes a visceral reaction from his political opponents. They hear echoes of the Confederacy in his full name (much as some think Obama’s conjures the Muslim world), and Sessions’ courtly manners and soft drawl bring to mind an antebellum era he has never fully repudiated.
Sessions has granted no interviews and has said little in public since Trump nominated him in November. On stage with the president-elect last month in Mobile, he promised to “serve everybody with equality and justice” as attorney general. He wore a white hat displaying Trump’s campaign slogan: “Make America Great Again.”
Sessions’ attitudes about race loom large for his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday and Wednesday. Civil-rights groups have criticized his nomination, and several were arrested during a sit-in at his office in Mobile. Supporters, however, have tried to moderate Sessions’ image by distributing photographs from the 2015 Selma commemoration – particularly those in which he appeared with Lewis, the congressman from Atlanta.
Sessions marched that day “because he knew how meaningful his presence and participation were,” U.S. Rep. Martha Roby, a Republican from Alabama, wrote on Facebook, where she posted the pictures. “These are the photos that Senator Sessions’ critics don’t want you to see.”
Other images give different impressions: police in riot gear, a young woman gasping for breath in a cloud of tear gas, a police officer beating a civil-rights worker to the ground. All come from 1965 in Camden, Alabama, population 1,100: Jeff Sessions’ hometown.
‘A ROUGH TIME’
Camden was “idyllic,” Sessions said last year in an interview with Politico. He went to school barefoot until junior high. Parents and teachers instilled traditional values.
“I guess it’s not really very complicated,” Sessions said in 1996. “When you come down to it, we were taught a couple of things first and foremost, such as the value of hard work and being honest.”
At Wilcox County High School, Sessions graduated in the class of 1965. He had never attended school with a black child.
The county’s black students attended Camden Academy, sometimes in classrooms of 80 or more. In the mid-1960s, the county was so determined to keep its schools segregated that it forfeited federal education funding – equivalent to almost $5 million today – rather than accept an integration plan.
Sessions, born on Christmas Eve 1946 in Selma, lived with his family in Hybart, a farming community 14 miles outside Camden. He was an only child, known as “Buddy” to distinguish him from his father. Jeff Sessions Jr. ran the community’s general store.
“That’s where we’d go get our Coca-Colas,” said Neoda McArthur Strickland, Sessions’ childhood neighbor and playmate. “Everything was close by. You could see the store from our houses.”
Strickland recalled days spent outdoors, the children restrained only by admonitions to stay out of nearby Tallatchee Creek. Both of their mothers employed a succession of black maids, Strickland said, and one brought her children to work on Saturdays. They were the only black playmates for either Sessions or Strickland.
By the early 1960s, when Sessions entered high school, relationships between black and white residents of Camden were fraying.
“You knew your place and you stayed in that place,” said Sim Pettway, who attended Camden Academy at the same time Sessions attended the county schools. “You were like one of the animals. You were told what to do, where to go, where not to go. God, did we have a rough time.”
Even in the best of times, white residents regarded their black neighbors with a mixture of condescension and contempt.
“I don’t know what has happened to the nigras in Wilcox County,” the local tax assessor told the journalist Gene Roberts of The New York Times in 1966. “You never hear them sing any more.”
Before black residents could cash checks at the time, they had to see the sheriff, P.C. (Lum) Jenkins – “Lummie” to whites, “Mister Lummie” to blacks. Jenkins’ initials on a check told bankers he considered that particular black person to be trustworthy.
King came to Camden twice in April 1965 and delivered sermons at Antioch Baptist Church on the edge of town. At the time, blacks made up three-fourths of Wilcox County’s population. None, however, were registered to vote.
The day after King’s first sermon, 600 people marched toward the white-columned Wilcox County Courthouse on Camden’s town square, hoping to open voter registration to black residents. The police, however, blocked the way. A news photo widely published in the North showed an officer beating a white civil-rights worker with a night stick. Other pictures captured images of young black demonstrators crying and retching amid the clouds of smoke and tear gas.
Maria Gitin was a white college student from San Francisco who came to Camden in 1965 through a program sponsored by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In an interview, she described Wilcox County as the scene of intense violence. A white man shot a black man to death outside Antioch Baptist Church, ostensibly over a minor traffic accident. Activists like Sim Pettway, who was organizing protests as a teenager, left town for fear of being assaulted. Gitin went to jail after one protest.
Almost 51 years later, Gitin met Sessions at an event in Washington. He was a veteran senator by then, and she had published a memoir of her experience in his hometown.
Sessions listened as she recalled the Camden of 1965, Gitin said. Then he told her, “Oh, you know, I was a teenager then and I didn’t know anything about it.”
PROTECTED FROM TURMOIL
At Huntingdon College in Montgomery, Sessions would become student body president, lead the Young Republicans club, and meet his future wife.
First, he had to endure Rat Week.
Huntingdon’s campus newspaper, The Gargoyle, reported on a “kangaroo court” at which Sessions was among freshmen forced to eat broken eggs, raw oysters and hot peppers. Then upperclassmen smeared them with peanut butter.
The freshmen retaliated, The Gargoyle said, by hanging the sophomore class president in effigy – with a rope strung across a tree limb, in the style of a lynching.
Huntingdon, affiliated with the United Methodist Church, was all-white when Sessions enrolled in 1965. It wasn’t until Sessions’ senior year, in September 1968, that the school admitted its first black student – one among 1,000.
The campus seemed to exist in a protective bubble that kept the turmoil of the 1960s at bay.
“Old South Day” was an annual celebration. The coronation of the “Best Dressed Girl” was front-page news in The Gargoyle. The Social Standards Board judged student behavior.
The Gargoyle’s May 4, 1968, edition described a May Day event at which eight couples performed a dance, the women dressed in “gold antebellum dresses”; the men, in Confederate uniforms.
Exactly one month earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. The Gargoyle took no notice of that news.
Sessions’ college years culminated with his election as student body president and his winning the school’s “Loyalty Award.” He posed for the 1969 yearbook holding what appeared to be a Bible.
“He was Mr. Huntingdon,” said Anthony Leigh, now a senior vice president of the college.
Sessions taught in a Montgomery public school for a year before he entered the University of Alabama’s law school in the fall of 1970. Compared to Huntingdon, the university embodied chaos.
The previous spring, the campus had shut down after an old ROTC building burned during an anti-war demonstration. The unrest continued as Sessions’ law school class arrived.
Law students debated civil rights, the liberalism of the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren and vague notions of what a few called “the revolution,” said Margaret Marston, one of Sessions’ classmates.
Sessions “was very, very conservative then,” said Marston, a Democratic-leaning former lawyer, “and he hasn’t changed since, apparently.”
He became the Alabama director of a student group promoting President Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972. The same year, he sent a letter to the campus newspaper, the Crimson White, criticizing a cartoon that poked fun at Nixon.
“The thing,” Sessions wrote, “was not the least bit funny.”
Of the 150 students in Sessions’ class, all but four were men. All but two were white.
Donald Watkins, one of the black students, said some classmates referred to him with racial slurs. Most others, he said, treated him with “benign neglect.”
Sessions was different.
“He approached me in September 1970, introduced himself, shook my hand, and asked if I would be interested in joining the Young Republicans group on campus,” Watkins said in an email interview. Watkins declined the invitation. But he and Sessions remain on friendly terms to this day.
“Sessions never called me a ‘nigger,’” Watkins said, “he never referred to me as a ‘boy’ or some other racially derogatory term, and he always spoke to me in a respectful tone.”
“I do not know why Jeff befriended me in 1970,” Watkins said, “but he did.”
George E. Jones was the other black student in the class. He declined to discuss his relationship with Sessions.
By his 39th birthday, Sessions had been the U.S. attorney for southern Alabama for almost five years. Then, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the U.S. District Court in Mobile. It would be a lifetime appointment – if, as seemed likely, the Senate confirmed him. It had rejected just one judicial nominee in the previous 50 years.
But Sessions’ past turned against him.
Witnesses told the Senate Judiciary Committee about Sessions’ history of racially insensitive remarks, some made in jest but others apparently not. Either way, the testimony turned Sessions into a Southern caricature that repelled even some of his fellow Republicans.
A Department of Justice lawyer recounted the time he told Sessions that informants inside the Ku Klux Klan were having memory problems because they smoked so much marijuana. He said Sessions responded that he had respected Klansmen until he found out they used drugs.
A former assistant U.S. attorney testified that Sessions had described the NAACP and other civil-rights groups as “un-American” and “Communist-inspired.”
It was the same assistant, Thomas Figures, the first black lawyer in the U.S. attorney’s office in Mobile, who claimed Sessions had called him “boy.” He also said Sessions told him to be more deferential to white people. Figures died in 2015.
Sessions told the Judiciary Committee that Figures’ accusations were untrue, and he dismissed his “silly comment” about the Klan as a joke. But his explanation of the other remarks mirrored the patronizing tone once so prevalent in his hometown.
Civil-rights groups were getting involved in extraneous matters, Sessions said, citing the NAACP’s support for “Third World revolutionary theology.”
“When they demand more than is legitimate,” he said, “it hurts their position.”
As U.S. attorney, Sessions oversaw public-corruption prosecutions in Mobile; an investigation into the Klan’s role in the lynching of a 19-year-old black man, a case ultimately handled by local prosecutors; and lawsuits to enforce civil-rights and voting-rights laws.
One case continues to raise uncomfortable questions about Sessions’ racial attitudes.
In 1984, Sessions’ office alleged that three civil-rights activists altered 27 absentee ballots to sway an election in Perry County, Alabama. One of the defendants was Albert Turner, an organizer of the Selma marches. Turner also led the mule wagon that carried King’s body in a funeral procession through Atlanta.
In 1986, senators questioned unleashing the federal government’s power in a case that seemed so inconsequential. But Sessions said he acted to protect the rights of black citizens who were not politically aligned with Turner and the other defendants. The case warranted prosecution, he said, despite the jury’s not-guilty verdicts.
In an interview, Robert Turner Sr., Albert Turner’s brother and one of his defense lawyers, said that by prosecuting a prominent activist, Sessions was trying to “dilute black voting strength.”
“At the time,” Robert Turner said, “I thought the charges were a witch hunt. I thought the purpose of the charges was to dampen the enthusiasm for black people to participate in the electoral process.”
Albert Turner died in 2000. Signs celebrating his achievements stand along the road from Marion, his hometown, to Selma, 30 miles away.
On a recent afternoon in Marion, Robert Turner hesitated when asked whether racism motivated Sessions’ prosecution of his brother.
Sessions, Turner said after a long moment, had an “unfettered” chance as U.S. attorney to demonstrate his real attitudes on race. Taking such a weak case to trial, he said, was “indicative of what he thinks.”
During the 1986 confirmation hearing, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts cited the Perry County case in describing Sessions as “a throwback to a shameful era” and “a disgrace” to the Justice Department.
Sessions told the Judiciary Committee that Kennedy’s remarks were “the most painful thing that has ever been said to me, public or private.” Then the committee voted down his nomination.
Ten years later, Sessions would arrive in Washington as Alabama’s newly elected junior senator. He would become known for opposing illegal — and, sometimes, legal — immigration, criticizing liberalization of marijuana laws, helping level penalties for possession of crack and powder cocaine, and resisting federal sentencing reform.
Sessions eventually joined the same Judiciary Committee that had rejected him. There, he voted to confirm Eric Holder as the nation’s first black attorney general but opposed Loretta Lynch as the second. He also voted against confirming Supreme Court nominees Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. He criticized the latter’s statements that as a “wise Latina woman,” she brought valuable life experiences to the bench. Without even a nod to his own confirmation hearing, he said a judge’s basing decisions on his or her background “goes against the American ideal and oath that a judge takes to be fair to every party.”
RETURN FROM SELMA
After he returned to Washington from Selma in 2015, Sessions made a small gesture of reconciliation in the nation’s racial divide.
He sponsored a Senate resolution awarding the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the nation’s two highest civilian honors, to the “foot soldiers” of the civil-rights movement. The medal paid tribute to people like John Lewis and Albert Turner, people who were beaten at Selma and tear-gassed at Camden, people who risked and lost their lives in service of a cause.
An element of regret tinged Sessions’ speech at a ceremony honoring the medal recipients.
“As a child and a teenager, I saw evidence of discrimination virtually every day,” he said. “I think even the youth of our time were aware of the historic events that were beginning to unfold in Selma, but maybe – probably – not understanding the significance of it.
“Certainly,” he continued, “I feel like I should have stepped forward more and been a leader and a more positive force in the great events that were occurring.”
“More,” of course, implies a level of action to build on – something beyond crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years later or sponsoring a congressional resolution.
In Alabama, though, this seems not to matter much. Sessions easily won election to the Senate four times, most recently in 2014. And last month, freshly nominated to be attorney general, he received an enthusiastic welcome at Trump’s final victory rally in a Mobile football stadium.
“I think he’s a good guy,” Janet McElroy, a 60-year-old court reporter, said while waiting for Sessions and Trump to arrive. “I know he made those comments years ago. Back then, everything was different – there was more prejudice.”
It was a festive day. A band played “Sweet Home Alabama,” and the crowd reprised the familiar chants of Trump’s campaign rallies: “Lock her up!” and “Build that wall!” Young women from a group called the Azalea Trail Maids greeted Trump at the airport and posed for pictures at the stadium, resplendent in the brightly colored hoop skirts of Alabama’s antebellum past.
It all seemed so far removed from Selma, from Camden, and from the mighty stream of history.