The president of the NAACP led an occupation of Sen. Jeff Sessions' Mobile, Alabama, office Tuesday, demanding that Sessions withdraw his name from consideration as attorney general of the incoming Trump administration.
Fifteen to 30 activists, including Cornell Williams Brown, president of the NAACP, and Bernard Simleton, head of the group’s Alabama chapter, walked into Sessions’ office around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday after denouncing the senator in a series of coordinated press conferences. They demanded to speak with Sessions, refusing to leave until the Republican lawmaker met with them. The activists acknowledged they could be arrested.
“We want to make sure that the word is out,” Simleton told International Business Times by phone from Sessions’ office as he waited for hours with no word from the senator. “So next week when he goes up to the confirmation hearing, those senators on the judicial committee will have to ask Sen. Sessions why his people in Alabama would go to the extent of being arrested to protest his nomination.”
Simleton said the office staff promised to bring the protesters' concerns to Sessions, but the senator was unavailable to meet with them.
“They said they are not going to ask us to leave,” Simleton said. “We appreciate the hospitality, but that still does not prevent us from asking Sen. Sessions to withdraw his name because of his past history.”
Sessions, a four-term GOP senator from Alabama and former U.S. attorney, was the first sitting senator to endorse Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. In November, the Trump transition team announced Sessions would be the incoming administration’s pick for attorney general.
President Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions for a federal judgeship in 1986, but the nomination was blocked by a Republican-controlled judiciary committee. In a 10-8 vote, the Senate committee voted against Sessions’ confirmation after witnesses testified that Sessions had a history of racial bias.
Thomas Figures, a black attorney who was later indicted for bribing a witness, claimed Sessions repeatedly referred to him as “boy” and called the ACLU and NAACP, among other groups, “un-American.” Another attorney who worked with Sessions in the 1980s, DOJ civil rights attorney Gerry Hebert, testified that when he told Sessions a story about a white judge calling a white attorney a “disgrace to his race,” Sessions replied that perhaps the judge was right. This November, Herbert told the Huffington Post he was “stunned” that Sessions could be attorney general.
Although the testimony of his former colleagues grabbed the headlines, Sessions’ actions as a prosecutor were also questioned on racist grounds. In 1985, his office indicted three activists for voter fraud in connection with their efforts to register voters in rural Alabama. Spencer Hogue, Albert Turner, who marched in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr, and Evelyn Turner were all acquitted of the charges.
While Sessions repeatedly denied any racist leanings, the then-39-year-old was only the second federal judicial nominee in the previous 50 years to have his nomination blocked, according to CNN.
Sessions' office wouldn't comment on whether it would expel the protesters or call the police on them. But a spokesperson defended Sessions' record.
"Jeff Sessions has dedicated his career to upholding the rule of law, ensuring public safety and prosecuting government corruption. Many African-American leaders who’ve known him for decades attest to this and have welcomed his nomination to be the next attorney general," said Sarah Isgur Flores, a spokesperson for Sessions' confirmation, in an email. "These false portrayals of Sen. Sessions will fail as tired, recycled, hyperbolic charges that have been thoroughly rebuked and discredited."
Sessions has a complicated relationship with Alabama's black community. While attorney general, Sessions ensured a Klu Klux Klan member recieved the death penalty for murdering a black man. He also helped desegreate Alabama schools.
But he has generally been viewed as an enemy to civil rights advocates. Most recently, 1,060 law students signed an open letter dated Dec. 22 that asked Trump to withdraw his consideration of Sessions for attorney general.
It's Sessions' recent stances on immigration, voting rights and stop and frisk that has the NAACP concerned. Sessions is a fierce critic of illegal immigration, he supports aggressive law enforcement policies and has been accused of supporting measures that limit ballot access.
"Our civil and human rights, he will not be there to protect them," said Simleton.