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Jeff Sessions’s comments on race: For the record

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

“Senator Sessions was denied appointment as a federal judge in 1986 for a slew of racist comments, including calling the work of the NAACP and ACLU ‘un-American.’ He has also repeatedly spoken out against the federal Voting Rights Act.”
— NAACP statement, Nov. 18, 2016 

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for attorney general, has drawn much criticism due to racially charged comments he made when he was a U.S. attorney in Alabama in the 1980s.

We have noticed his comments on race being circulated in news coverage, often just by quoting the NAACP’s statement or snippets of comments attributed to Sessions rather than taking a full account of the explanation and elaborations by Sessions. Obviously, The Fact Checker takes no position on Sessions’s nomination or his comments.

Sessions has not granted interviews since the nomination, but there is a 600-plus-page transcript of the 1986 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing during which he explained the racial remarks at length. So we combed through the transcript to provide a fuller context of Sessions’s comments, in his own words, about the allegations. (When the transcript refers to “The Chairman,” that’s the late senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina.)

The Facts

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan nominated Sessions for federal judge. Senators grilled Sessions over charges of racial insensitivity and prejudice, and heard testimony from 21 witnesses over 19 hours.

Sessions was rejected, based on his comments on race and his role in prosecuting a voter fraud case against black civil rights activists in Alabama. (We dug into that case in depth here.) The key testimony came from former assistant U.S. attorney Thomas Figures, the only black assistant U.S. attorney in Alabama at the time. (He died in January 2015.)

We took a look at the comments that were attributed to Sessions (marked in bold), and what he said about them in response.

“The NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Operation PUSH and the National Council of Churches were all un-American organizations teaching anti-American values.” 

Figures and then-Justice Department attorney J. Gerald Hebert attributed this comment to Sessions. Sessions recalled the conversation with Figures, and described it as such:

Sessions later said that he believed the NAACP and ACLU lose support when they “involved themselves in promoting un-American positions … particularly foreign policy issues.” Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the most vocal critics of Sessions throughout the hearing, asked Sessions: “Wait a minute. What foreign policy matters are you talking about?”

Sessions answered: “Oh, the sanctuary movement and Sandinistas, you know.”

But Figures rejected the claim that Sessions was referring only to foreign policy:

“Mr. Sessions did not refer to foreign policy or any other specific action, but he spoke as a man gravely concerned by the threat which he believed these organizations posed to American values. He chose his words carefully, distinguishing ‘un-American’ activities from ‘subversive’ activities, and making clear that he regarded the groups as un-American but not subversive…. He was without question describing his personal, and manifestly deeply felt, position.”

(Hebert recently wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post about his experience testifying about Sessions’s comments on race.)

Organizations like the NAACP “force civil rights down the throats of people.”

Hebert testified: “He said that he thought they did more harm than good; they were trying to force civil rights down the throats of people who were trying to put problems behind them.”

Sessions: “I do not recall [saying] it, unless it was in the context of them demanding things that were not justified beyond the traditional misunderstanding of law. But I do not have a specific instance in mind.”

“I thought those guys [the Ku Klux Klan] were OK until I learned they smoked pot.”

Sessions said this was a joke, and that he never thought anyone would take it seriously. During the hearing, some senators expressed disbelief that Sessions ever thought to even make the joke. This is what he said:

Barry Kowalski and Albert Glenn, attorneys at the Justice Department, testified that they heard Sessions make the KKK comment but had considered it a joke. Kowalski even retold Sessions’s comment to other people “as a story in a humorous vein.” He said: “When working on a case such as this one, a brutal murder and a hanging, those that work on it sometimes do resort to operating room humor and that is what I considered it to be at the time.”

Later in the hearings, Sessions said Figures’s assertion that Sessions seriously made the comment is “ludicrous.” “I had just learned that the investigation had revealed that the Klansmen had left some meeting, and gone to another one, and smoked pot. The comment ridiculed the Klan. I detest the Klan.”

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been implementing big changes at the Justice Department. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

But Figures said he took it seriously: “Whatever Mr. Sessions’s view of the Klan may be today, the remark that he made … was not made in a joking matter. I certainly took it as a serious statement.”

“You know the NAACP hates white people; they are out to get them. That is why they bring these lawsuits, and they are a commie group and a pinko organization as well.”

Sessions said:

“I do not recall saying anything like that. I will admit that I am pretty — in my office, in talking to people that I am associated with, I am loose with my tongue on occasion, and I may have said something similar to that or could be interpreted to that. I do not believe I have ever specifically — it would be inconceivable that I ever specifically referred to the NAACP as an un-American or commie organization, even kidding. I mean, I may have referred to my church, the Methodist Church, as probably a bunch of pinkos, maybe. But that is an awful thing to say, and it is not true.”
To Figures: “You ought to be careful as to what you say to white folks.”

Sessions said:

“That is not correct, Mr. Chairman. I was in the office with Mr. Figures and we were chatting and a secretary came in. Some passing comments were made and Mr. Figures made a cutting comment to her. I thought that his comment was in bad taste. Mr. Figures — and he and I talked to this and he has told me this himself. He said, you know, one of the things I get in trouble about is I will make a joke and people take it seriously, and we had discussed that before. And I told him at that time, I said, you ought to watch what you say to folks; that hurt her feelings. And that is the way that went down.”

Figures said Sessions’s remark “may not have been premeditated. There was a period in our own lifetimes when blacks were regularly admonished to be particularly polite or deferential, and a remark of that sort may have just slipped out inadvertently.”

“Mr. Figures specifically advised us that Mr. Sessions had referred to him as ‘boy’ during the period that Mr. Figures served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney.” — John Crump, executive director of National Bar Association, referring to the organization’s interview with Figures about Sessions.

Sessions rejected this allegation:

“I was also flabbergasted to hear Mr. Figures say that he was regularly called ‘boy’ in my office. He said I called him this, twice. I state categorically that I have never called Mr. Figures ‘boy.’ … ‘Boy’ is a reprehensible term to use to describe a black man in the South. Because of the history of that term, I have never used the word ‘boy’ to describe a black, nor would I tolerate it in my office.”

Figures said that Sessions had made this comment while standing in the doorways of the offices of E.T. Rolison and Ginny Granade, both from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Figures named Rolison and Granade as potential witnesses to this conversation, but the two signed affidavits saying they had never heard Sessions refer to Figures as “boy” or anything other than his name.

“Disgrace to his race”

In an interview with the American Bar Association for background on Sessions, Justice Department lawyer Hebert relayed racially charged comments he said he had heard Sessions make. In one instance, Hebert said he told Sessions that he heard that a judge had referred to Jim Blackshear, a white civil rights attorney, as “a disgrace to his race.” Hebert alleged that Sessions responded: “Well, maybe he is.”

Sessions was asked repeatedly about this statement. Sessions did not recall saying that, and said that if he did, he didn’t intend to convey that he agreed with the “disgrace to his race” comment about Blackshear. Blackshear declined The Fact Checker’s request for an interview. Sesssions said:

“I understand that that statement has been made [by Hebert], and I recall a conversation in which that was mentioned and I may have — I believe the statement was I had said, ‘Maybe he is,’ and that is really disturbing to me. I suppose — I do not know why I would have said that, and I certainly do not believe that. The lawyer in question is one of the finest lawyers in the country. I have defended him.
I have heard people say he has gotten some fees, hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollar fees, or maybe even nearly $1 million in one, for prolonged litigation that he and his firm had been involved in, and they have won and they get this money. And I have defended him. I said he was representing those cases at a time when he did not get paid anything. And he is a fine — one of the best lawyers in the country, and it really pains me to think that people would — that I would be quoted as saying that, and I do not know how I could have said it.”

At the end of the hearings, Sessions gave a closing statement to the committee. Regarding the statements on race, he said:

“As you can see, I simply did not make some of the statements that had been attributed to me, and the others were greatly distorted, tending to create a caricature of me. It is this caricature that you are asked to reject, not the Jeff Sessions that is sitting before you today.
I am not the Jeff Sessions my detractors have tried to create. I am not a racist. I am not insensitive to blacks. I supported civil rights activity in my state. I have done my job with integrity, equality, and fairness for all. I have served well as U.S. attorney. I am proud of that record, and I ask that you will consider that
when you are making your evaluation.
… Well, you say, Mr. Sessions, you have answered those questions, assuming you have. What do you say about these racially insensitive statements?
Let me speak frankly. All of us know that when the confidence of a private conversation is breached by a party with ulterior motives or one who simply misunderstands what the speaker says or means, the speaker can always be embarrassed. I enjoy repartee and frequently engage in devil’s advocacy. In short, when I talk to friends, I do not guard every word that I say because I think that I know they know that my commitment to equality and justice is real, and they would not twist my words or misinterpret what I am saying to them.”

The Bottom Line

Sessions’s comments on race likely will be relitigated during his upcoming confirmation hearings for attorney general. And unlike the 1986 hearings, the key witness, Thomas Figures, will not be able to provide any more insight into or corroborations of the claims. During the hearings, Sessions repeatedly rejected the claims or said they were taken out of context. Some committee members said they were concerned that Sessions could make a joke out of possibly respecting the KKK as an organization, or they raised questions about Sessions’s biases and judgment. The Republican majority committee ultimately rejected his nomination, as two Republicans joined every Democrat in voting against him.

We’ve seen a lot of news outlets and social media posts that simply copy and paste the most scandalous snippets of comments attributed to Sessions. And we acknowledge that Sessions’s explanations or responses to them don’t fit easily in 140 characters. But it is important to consider his side of the story, too.

If you want to share the alleged comments by Sessions, but don’t want to read through hundreds of pages of testimony, we have good news: We read it so you don’t have to, and all you need to do now is share this column.

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Needs context
“I thought those guys [the Ku Klux Klan] were OK until I learned they smoked pot.”
discussed at a 1986 Senate confirmation hearing
Tuesday, May 6, 1986