Politics & Policy

Senator Sessions: Friend of Underprivileged Minorities

(Reuters photo: Jose Luis Magana)
He stood up for Lowndes County.

As the media continue their ideologically driven campaign against President-elect Trump (thinly disguised as journalism), a target of choice has been the men and women selected for Cabinet posts. Among these is Senator Jeff Sessions, Trump’s choice for attorney general. Attacks against Sessions hinge on decades-old conversations that may have included racist terms (which may or may not have been said in jest).

I have known and worked with Senator Sessions for more than 15 years and know firsthand that his leadership, his compassion, and his actions to uplift “the least among us” far outweigh the weak allegations brought against him.

I first met Senator Sessions in 2001, when Catherine Flowers, a community leader who was working to salvage her community in rural Alabama that was in crisis, came to my office at the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (CNE) to ask for help. The most pressing issue was that 37 families were under threat of arrest or eviction after they were cited for violations of health regulations, when it was found that raw sewage was flowing above ground. The residents, even more than the authorities, wanted a solution for the problem, which threatened their well-being and their children’s health. But for a community where the average income was $20,000, the poverty rate was above 30 percent, and families lived in dilapidated trailers, the $12,000 required to install septic tanks was hopelessly beyond reach.

Flowers lived in Lowndes County, the site of 43 miles of the 54-mile 1965 voting-rights march from Selma to Montgomery. For the past 50 years, purported spokespersons of the black community have conducted annual parades along the route to commemorate the march. But it seemed that they never looked left or right to witness the poverty that surrounded them. They certainly made no effort to alleviate it. In addition to the crisis of waste disposal, there were no public recreation facilities for youth and no public libraries, and the county’s schools were heated by dust-spewing coal furnaces and lacked wiring sufficient to support computers and Internet access. With virtually no manufacturing and economic development in the area, employment opportunities were dismal. Yet, at the end of each annual parade, the leaders typically returned to their speaking engagements and comfortable offices, putting thoughts of Lowndes County aside until the following year. Many of them would be among the cohort to rail against Senator Sessions’s recent nomination for AG. Yet, where they did nothing, Sessions was the one who took action to marshal support to revitalize the desolate community.

Senator Sessions intervened to move forward congressional appropriations from the EPA to provide funds for the installment of septic tanks. He joined with CNE to meet with Household International (HSBC), which elicited private-sector support from consultants who worked to tackle the immediate problem of waste management and launch a five-year initiative to promote economic development, provide financial-literacy training, and create housing opportunities.

When the Hyundai Corporation built a $1 billion manufacturing plant just six miles from the Lowndes County border, Senator Sessions recognized the prospects for manufacturing suppliers and worked to secure $4 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce that made possible the construction of two industrial parks that became second-tier auto suppliers.

In 2004, Senator Sessions hosted a meeting on Capitol Hill that brought 100 corporate and policy representatives to learn about the Alabama Rural Initiative (ARI), in which Catherine Flowers was involved. As a result of that meeting, Microsoft Corporation donated more than $65,000 worth of software to equip computer centers for the low-income residents of Lowndes County. Representatives from the U.S. Department of Labor who attended the event encouraged the ARI to apply for a planning grant for a Career Development Workforce Center. The grant was received in 2005, and a comprehensive plan was developed to bring together workforce preparation, adult remedial education, and legal-assistance initiatives in Lowndes County to provide a road out of poverty for its residents.

Senator Sessions’s support for Lowndes County also includes efforts to preserve its historical legacy. When he received a letter from an angry constituent demanding that Alabama’s Interpretive Center along the Selma-Montgomery March trail be closed down and charging that it was “an orgy temple of hate,” Sessions toured the Center’s exhibits with Flowers and declared that “everyone should know this history.” He was instrumental in transferring the authority for the Interpretive Center from the State of Alabama to the National Park Service, where it will be preserved in perpetuity.

I know firsthand his leadership, his compassion, and his actions to uplift ‘the least among us.’

Catherine Flowers recently sent me a powerful testimony to Senator Sessions. “I have been seeing all the press on Senator Sessions and I do not recognize the person they are describing,” she wrote. “From my vantage point, I do not know who he may have been at one time, but I have known him to be a friend to the people of Lowndes County.”

Those who would oppose the appointment of Senator Sessions as attorney general would do well to consider the words of President Obama in his eulogy for Senator Robert Byrd, a former member of and recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan: “We know there are things he said and things he did that he came to regret. . . . As I reflect on the full sweep of his years, it seems to me that his life bent towards justice. Like the Constitution he tucked in his pocket, like our nation itself, Robert Byrd possessed that quintessential American quality, and that is a capacity to change, a capacity to learn, a capacity to listen, a capacity to be made more perfect.”

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is the founder and president of The Woodson Center, which works to empower local leaders in troubled neighborhoods to increase public safety, spur upward mobility, and inspire racial unity in America. His new book is Red, White, and Black: Rescuing American History from Revisionists and Race Hustlers.


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