Yesterday, Senate Republicans struck a deal, resulting in Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) stepping up as Sen. Arlen Specter’s (D-PA) replacement as the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sessions’ promotion was quickly praised by conservatives, including former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS), who called it “poetic justice” after the Judiciary Committee had rejected Sessions’s own judicial nomination in 1986.
Lott’s praise for Sessions is interesting, considering that they both have reputations that have been marred by racially insensitive remarks. In 2002, Lott stepped down as Senate Minority Leader after he sparked controversy by praising the segregationist run for president by the late Strom Thurmond.
At the time, the New Republic’s Sarah Wildman argued that if the conservatives were “serious” about stamping out racism in their movement, they should take a look at Sessions:
Herbert testified that the young lawyer tended to “pop off” on such topics regularly, noting that Sessions had called a white civil rights lawyer a “disgrace to his race” for litigating voting rights cases. Sessions acknowledged making many of the statements attributed to him but claimed that most of the time he had been joking, saying he was sometimes “loose with [his] tongue.” He further admitted to calling the Voting Rights Act of 1965 a “piece of intrusive legislation,” a phrase he stood behind even in his confirmation hearings.
It got worse. Another damaging witness–a black former assistant U.S. Attorney in Alabama named Thomas Figures–testified that, during a 1981 murder investigation involving the Ku Klux Klan, Sessions was heard by several colleagues commenting that he “used to think they [the Klan] were OK” until he found out some of them were “pot smokers.” Sessions claimed the comment was clearly said in jest. Figures didn’t see it that way. Sessions, he said, had called him “boy” and, after overhearing him chastise a secretary, warned him to “be careful what you say to white folks.”
During his unsuccessful 1986 confirmation hearing, Sessions was also scrutinized for investigating three civil rights workers in Alabama’s “Black Belt” counties for voter fraud while ignoring predominantly white communities. In an interview with TPM’s Brian Beutler yesterday, one of the civil rights workers, Spencer Hogue, Jr, recalled the case. “We were trying to get the right to vote,” said Hogue. “He tried to persecute us.”