Two years ago, first-term Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) took five minutes during a marathon speech aimed at stripping healthcare coverage from millions of Americans to read Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham on the Senate floor. But at Tuesday’s confirmation hearing for attorney general nominee and current Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Cruz spent eight minutes attempting to tell the American people a much more misleading tale.
Angered by citizen protests, tough grilling by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), and media coverage of Sessions’ decades-long record of racist remarks and opposition to civil rights at nearly every turn, Cruz told a story about a 1981 lynching in Mobile, Alabama, by members of the Ku Klux Klan, and Sessions’ role in the prosecution of those Klansman — omitting the key detail that Sessions reportedly wanted the case dropped.
“I noticed every time a protester jumped up, all the photographers took pictures of the protesters. I suspect we’ll see them in all the papers,” Cruz scolded. “I would encourage the news media, cover this story. Tell the story on the 6:00 news about Jeff Sessions helping prosecute a Klansman who murdered an innocent African-American man and put him on death row and helping bankrupt the Klan in Alabama.”
In the Texas Republican’s telling of the history, after the murder, Sessions — then U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama — heroically joined with the FBI and the local district attorney to prosecute the two Klansman responsible for the murders, fought for capital punishment for one of the assailants, and made him “the first white man executed in Alabama for murdering a black person since 1913.” When the Southern Poverty Law Center brought a civil suit against the Klan, Cruz added, Sessions’ office cooperated and helped them obtain “the $7 million civil judgment against the KKK in Alabama” which “bankrupted the Klan leading to its demise in the state.”
The crux of Cruz’s argument is simple. Sessions cannot be a racist because he prosecuted KKK members for murder in the 1980s. This understanding of racism essentially draws the line at “is it okay to lynch and kill black people or should they face prosecution?” In a country that has seen centuries of slavery and segregation, racism has hardly been exclusively about lynchings and murders — and merely doing your job in prosecuting murder cases should not be considered heroic.
But the problem is — even that argument is false. Far from being an anti-Klan crusader, Sessions admitted in his 1986 confirmation hearing for a federal judgeship to having once said that he thought the KKK was “okay” until he learned that they smoked marijuana. He claimed it was a joke, calling it “a silly comment, I guess you might say, that I made.” A Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee rejected his nomination.
And Sessions claimed in the conversation with Cruz on Tuesday that “we did everything possible to destroy and defeat and prosecute the Klan members who were involved in this crime. It was a good joint effort. I was supportive of it every step of the way and some great lawyers worked very hard on it.” While he acknowledged that the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division attorneys working with “assistant Thomas Figures in my office” were the ones who “broke that case,” he claimed, “I was with them, I was in the grand jury with them.”
But as the Daily Beast reported, Figures told Sessions’ predecessor in the Senate, the late Sen. Howell Heflin (D-AL) back in 1986, that while his boss did not ultimately obstruct the prosecution, “in the early stages of the case, Mr. Sessions did attempt to persuade me to discontinue pursuit of the case.” Figures testified that Sessions called the case “a waste of time” that “wasn’t going anywhere” and encouraged him to “spend more time on other things.”
“All of these statements were well calculated to induce me to drop the case,” Figures said, and only after the case went to the grand jury, when it “became increasingly apparent that we were going to break the case, Mr. Sessions’ attitude changed” and he came to support the prosecution.
As a senator, Sessions has vigorously opposed what he called the “so-called Hate Crimes Act,” which increased federal assistance for prosecutions of bias-crimes, and he has strongly supported policies that create racial disparities in voting rights and criminal justice.
Franken also pointed out in Tuesday’s hearing that Sessions had listed several civil rights cases as among the ten “most significant litigated matters” he had “personally handled,” in a questionnaire he provided to the Judiciary Committee last month. Attorneys involved in those cases have come forward to say that Sessions’ role in those matters had been minimal. Sessions filed an addendum clarifying his role and admitted during the questioning that he did not even know the attorney who had handled one of those cases.
The KKK continues to operate in Alabama. The Klan’s official national newspaper and Sessions both endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 election. And former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke was just one of several prominent white nationalists who endorsed Sessions to be attorney general.