What Jeff Sessions Has Said About Race and Civil Rights

Beyond controversial remarks from the 1980s, what has Sessions said on race?

ByABC News
November 18, 2016, 7:02 PM

— -- The man who Donald Trump has tapped as his nominee for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., is being criticized anew for decades-old allegations that he made racist remarks as a federal prosecutor in his home state.

Even then, Sessions insisted he harbored no racial bias and disputed the allegations made against him during hearings on his nomination to be a federal judge. Others alleged -- under oath -- that he once called a white civil rights lawyer a “disgrace to his race” and dubbed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People "un-American."

But what has Sessions said on other matters involving race? And what does his record otherwise reveal about how he may lead what he’s called the nation’s “greatest department”?

His remarks and actions have run the gamut, from prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan and promoting legislation that honors civil rights leader Rosa Parks, to opposing gay marriage and the inclusion of sexual orientation as a federal hate crime.

Here are some of Sessions' remarks on topics such as bias in policing, gay rights, investigative priorities and affirmative action.


During an August 2001 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was looking at legislation to penalize police departments that continue to make traffic and other stops based on race, Sessions acknowledged bias in policing.

“I think it is likely that within every department there are some officers who subtly, if not otherwise, are biased in the way they go about enforcing the law. I think that is just life. We know that to be true,” Sessions said. “It is not legitimate that an American citizen feels that they are more likely to be arrested or held to account or stopped and searched than someone else simply because of the color of their skin. ... Most people are not going to file a lawsuit if they have been mistreated. They are just going to nurse a grudge and feel like their country hasn't treated them fairly. So that is why we need to deal with it and keep talking about it and see if we can come up with a policy that will work.”

Sessions also welcomed the “heightened attention” on racial profiling, saying more discussions had already “improved some of the things that have happened.”

But the senator expressed concern that police “might be in a Catch-22” -– navigating the prospect of disproportionate policing and “legitimate” concerns of a minority community “afraid for their lives and their children's lives.” If police are “more aggressive in a neighborhood where the high crime rate is, which may be a minority neighborhood, [they] might be criticized statistically in some way under this,” Sessions said. “It could cause an officer to be intimidated from doing the very things necessary to protect the African-American community if we misread the data, if we over-read the data.”

Fourteen years later, during another Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sessions said he believes “community-based policing is a great thing,” but, “it is clear that police officers all over America are concerned” about legal actions taken by the Justice Department against police officers and police departments.

“I do think it’s a real problem when we have Black Lives Matter making statements that are really radical, that are absolutely false,” Sessions said during the November 2015 hearing. He expressed concern that, in his view, officials within the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division had yet to criticize statements made by Black Lives Matter such as "Pigs in a Blanket, Fry ‘Em Like Bacon."

During the hearing, Sessions said an “experienced law enforcement officer” in Alabama told him “the kinds of problems we’re seeing and the legal actions that have been taken and the marches in protest about police do have the tendency to cause [police]...to stay under the shade tree, and not walk the streets.”


In June 2015, when the Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, Sessions issued a statement saying the nation’s highest court had “redefined a sacred and ancient institution.”

“It is not an act of courage but supreme arrogance to pretend that the wisdom of five judges is greater than all the men and women who have voted upon this issue in the 50 states, and the men and women whose convictions have defined the course of western civilization,” the statement continued. Sessions said the Supreme Court’s decision was “part of a continuing effort to secularize” the country “by force and intimidation.” He concluded: “[W]hether these progressive victories are transient, or permanent, depends on us.”

In January 2015, Sessions said the Obama administration’s decision to abandon the Defense of Marriage Act “still galls me.” “It was shameful and disgraceful and an abandonment of the rule of law,” he said.

When the U.S. government in late 2010 was considering a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Sessions said he was “inclined” to believe the policy “has been pretty effective, and I'm dubious about the change, although I fully recognize that good people could disagree on that subject.” He also said the public discussion on the matter was “probably” having “some disruptive effect on the military.” “It's probably not been good for morale,” and problems “have arisen from it,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in December of that year.

For years, Sessions opposed the Matthew Shepard Act -- which would expand the definition of “hate crimes” to include attacks on people based on their sexual orientation, gender or disability. During a June 2009 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions said the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which boosted protections of African-Americans, “was based on a demonstrated need” – unlike those covered by the new legislation. “When we now carve out a different class of people that may also deserve that kind of protection, we need … to explain why these cases are such that they are not being adequately prosecuted by state courts, why they're not being adequately prosecuted throughout the system, and why we need to have the federal government take over prosecutions that they have not taken over before,” Sessions said. “People are concerned with how we are picking and choosing the people who receive the extra protection.”

More than a decade earlier, in 1997, when Senate Democrats were planning to introduce legislation making it a federal civil rights crime to target someone based on their sexual orientation, gender or disabilities, a spokesman for Sessions said the Alabama lawmaker "would be reluctant to expand the definition of hate crimes but will wait to see the actual legislation before making a final decision," according to the Times-Picayune at the time.


“I do believe we have voter fraud in America,” Sessions told former Attorney General Eric Holder during a June 2012 hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “And if you do not have voter ID, I would observe that somebody can walk in to a voting place where they know there is a registered person on the rolls who was not a citizen, not alive or in another state and just say they are John Jones and vote for that person.”

He said states have “every right, and in fact, a duty, to try to maintain clear rolls that have integrity to them.”


It’s unclear exactly what types of cases Sessions would seek to prioritize in his civil rights division. But the cases he has chosen to support may offer some insight.

While U.S. Attorney in Alabama, Sessions prosecuted members of the Ku Klux Klan who killed Michael Donald, a young black man, and hung his body from a tree in 1981. One of them was sentenced to death, and when another was sentenced to life in prison, Sessions issued a statement saying, “Although Donald's family can never be made whole, it may perceive some sense of justice by the most severe sentence permissible here.”

Then during his confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship in 1986, a lawyer who had worked with Sessions alleged that he said the Ku Klux Klan was, “OK until I found out they smoked pot.” Sessions apologized and said the remark was a joke. “The comment ridiculed the Klan,” Sessions insisted "I detest the Klan.” Nevertheless, amid several allegations of racially-charged comments, Sessions was blocked by the Senate from becoming a judge.

Then in 1999, Sessions sought federal involvement in what he viewed as civil rights violations against religious voters. He and other Senate Republicans urged then-Attorney General Janet Reno to launch a federal probe of Americans United, the outspoken group advocating for separation of church and state, which sent information to churches about the implications of getting involved in the political process. Reno refused to launch an investigation.

Sessions wasn’t as aggressive a year later, when more than 30 women were targeted in Central Park after the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. At least one New York City official described the incident as a hate crime, but Sessions said federal authorities should not get involved in the matter, believing the attackers should not be charged with civil rights violations. “That's the kind of crime that's just essentially a state offense. It's the kind of street crime that ought to be done in state court,” Sessions said in a TV appearance days after the attack. Eventually, several of the attackers were charged in state court, and many police officers were disciplined for failing to properly respond to the attacks.


In 1997, Sessions told the Senate Judiciary Committee affirmative action was a “very, very difficult subject."

"We certainly want to reach out and make sure that every minority individual has full chances and rights in America. But when we make that a part of a legal requirement of this nation, that the benefits and privileges of belonging to each American should be dispensed because of what group you belong to, and according to certain complex formulas of race and gender and those kind of things, we get into very troubling issues," he said. "I think it has, in fact, been a cause of irritation and perhaps has delayed the kind of movement to racial harmony we ought to be going forward [with] today. I think it makes people unhappy if they lost a contract or a right to go to a school or a privilege to attend a university simply because of their race.”


In 2013, Sessions stood by his push for legislation that would make all government services only in English. "I think that is good policy," Session told ABC News in 2013. "We want Americans who come here lawfully to be able to operate in the English language. ... I do believe English should be the common language and it helps immigrants to effectively advance if they do master English and I think that's perfectly reasonable."

Sessions has said that comprehensive immigration reform “is not the civil rights movement.” In January 2015, he said it is “a huge erosion of constitutional powers of the United States Congress when the president of the United States, in contradiction to law, gives lawful status to people who are here unlawfully under the law and not only that, creates a Social Security number for them, a photo ID and an authorization to work and a right to participate in Social Security and Medicare. This is a stunning event.”


Sessions has sponsored legislation on several occasions to recognize and honor the contributions made to America by Rosa Parks, whom he said “sparked the civil rights movement when she refused to give up her seat on a bus.” In 1999, he co-sponsored a Senate bill to award Parks with the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the nation's top civilian awards.

“Ms. Parks has come to be a living embodiment of this principle,” he said. “True equality, the total elimination of discrimination, and a real sense of ease and acceptance among the races has not yet been achieved. But it is fair to say that in the history of this effort, the most dramatic and productive chapter was ignited by the lady we seek to honor.”

Six days before Brian Kinder, a poor, African-American man, was to go on trial in Missouri for a 1990 murder and rape, the judge presiding over the case issued a statement saying “the Democrat party places far too much emphasis on representing minorities such as homosexuals, people who don't want to work, and people with a skin that's any color but white. Their reverse-discriminatory quotas and affirmative action, in the work place as well as in schools and colleges, are repugnant to me.” Kinder unsuccessfully tried to remove the judge and was convicted. In 2001, during a Senate hearing, Sessions called the judge’s remarks “insensitive at worst” (he initially said "insensitive at best" but indicated that wasn't what he meant). He supported the judge in continuing to preside over the case, saying, “I would believe that if the judge conducted a fair trial, there was not one hint that he did anything to bias that case, the [decision] should not be reversed.”

In the late 1990s, federally-funded research found that minority youths were being arrested and confined at disproportionate rates, and some state-focused studies found that young minorities received stiffer sentences than their white counterparts for the same offenses, according to the Associated Press at the time. But Sessions co-authored a bill that “would scrap the federal mandate requiring states look into ways of reducing disproportionate minority confinement,” the Associated Press reported in 1999.


During an April 2010 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sessions weighed in on housing discrimination.

“I'm a strong believer that many people are discriminated against and unfairly handled with regard to big items like homes and end up paying a lot more interest, and they may not have realized, as you said, just how significant that is; how every month they may be paying another $50, $60, $100 that they don't have really and could be avoided," he said. "... And I spent a lot of time having meetings over in my state and with the housing people to make sure that our African-American community particularly took advantage of the housing opportunities the federal government had provided.”

During a May 2014 hearing before the Senate Budget Committee, Sessions commented on challenges facing women. “There's no question that … despite some progress, women do still face challenges, unique challenges, and discrimination," he said. "They must have, in America, a fair and equal workplace for all our citizens.” He noted that the “workforce participation rate for women is now at its lowest level in 23 years,” and that “real wages for women have been stagnant since 2009.”

And he called working moms “heroes in the American economy.”