Politics & Policy

The Myth of Jeff Sessions’s Racist Crusade against Voting Rights

Sessions at his confirmation hearings, January 10, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
Democrats are levelling scurrilous accusations about a case Sessions brought as U.S. attorney decades ago.

As the confirmation hearing for Jeff Sessions, President-elect Donald Trump’s attorney-general pick, kicked off yesterday morning, many onlookers correctly anticipated that the Alabama senator would face questions about his dealings with black Americans during his time as a U.S. attorney in the state. One such question — tossed around liberally prior to the hearing — involved a voter-fraud case that Sessions once prosecuted, which some have presented as both evidence of his supposed bias against black Americans and his desire to prevent them from voting. It is widely accepted that this case was the primary reason that Sessions’s nomination for a federal judgeship was torpedoed in 1986.

But during Tuesday’s hearing, not a single senator on the Judiciary Committee referenced the case. The only mention came from Sessions himself, who preemptively responded to the accusations in his opening remarks:

Let me address another issue straight on. I was accused in 1986 of failing to protect the voting rights of African-Americans by presenting the Perry County case — the voter-fraud case — of condemning civil-rights advocates and organization and even harboring, amazingly, sympathies for the KKK. These are false charges. The voter-fraud case my office prosecuted was in response to pleas from African-American, incumbent, elected officials who claimed the absentee-ballot process involved a situation in which ballots cast for them were stolen, altered, and cast for their opponents. The prosecution was sought to protect the integrity of the ballot, not the black voting. It was a voting-rights case.

A brief explanation of the facts of the case: Albert Turner, a black man from Perry County, Ala., began work in the late 1960s persuading fellow African Americans in the region that the 1965 Voting Rights Act had made it safe for them to vote. He and wife Evelyn formed the Perry County Civic League, which, among other things, helped poor, black citizens in the area register to vote. In Perry and other counties where the black population was 60 percent or more, the league began to support particular black candidates running for office.

As this transpired, opposition began to arise, according to a detailed New York Times report on the case:

But by the early 1980s, a local group, Concerned Citizens of Perry County, and a branch of the White Citizens Council, historically a white supremacist network, were working against Turner’s group to elect what they called a “coalition” of white and black candidates. A handbill from nearby Greene County urged voters to “support good, responsible blacks” to defeat “the radical forces of the black front.”

When white voters used the absentee-voting process to keep their vote totals up in this region and overwhelm the burgeoning black vote, Turner and his fellow activists started making house calls to help black individuals fill out absentee ballots and mail them in. Before the 1984 primaries, suspecting Turner and his group of possible illegal activity, the district attorney and a black candidate from the black-and-white coalition requested that the state’s U.S attorney investigate. That attorney was Jeff Sessions.

In the course of this investigation, Sessions stationed an agent outside the Perry County post office, and the agent witnessed the Turners and their fellow activist, Spencer Hogue, mailing hundreds of absentee ballots. An FBI inspection of these ballots revealed that 75 appeared to have been erased or remarked; that number was later reduced to 27.

The NYT reports that, at the conclusion of the ensuing investigation, “Albert and Evelyn Turner and Spencer Hogue were indicted in January 1985 on 29 counts, for mail fraud, conspiracy to commit voting fraud and voting more than once.” But in the end, all three were acquitted.

Though the complaining candidate in this case was also a black man, it seems evident that there was demonstrable racial animus on the part of those Sessions helped by bringing the case. But bringing the case happened to be Sessions’s job as a U.S. attorney, and there’s no evidence that his decision to do so was motivated by any racism on his part. In fact, as the case was brought back into the spotlight in the context of Sessions’s confirmation hearing, the Turners’ son, Albert Turner Jr. — who currently serves as a Perry County commissioner — released a letter endorsing Sessions for the position of attorney general:

I have known Senator Sessions for many years, beginning with the voter fraud case in Perry County in which my parents were defendants. My differences in policy and ideology with him do not translate to personal malice. He is not a racist. As I have said before, at no time then or now has Jeff Sessions said anything derogatory about my family. He was a prosecutor at the Federal level with a job to do. He was presented with evidence by a local District Attorney that he relied on, and his office presented the case. That’s what a prosecutor does. I believe him when he says that he was simply doing his job. I believe that he is someone with whom I, and others in the civil rights community can work if given the opportunity. I believe that he will listen, as he has in the past, to the concerns of my community. More than most I am very familiar with him. I believe he will be fair in his application of the law and the Constitution; as such I support his nomination to be the next Attorney General of the United States.

Sessions yesterday proved himself capable of defending his record on race relations, but the facts of the Perry County case demonstrate that he shouldn’t be forced to absolve himself at all. Like the other flimsy claims against him, the charge that Sessions opposes black voting rights highlights Democrats’ compulsive need to oppose the incoming administration regardless of the facts.

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