Attorney General Jeff Sessions honored the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. on Tuesday in a speech that ignored his own history― one dogged by decades of allegations of racial discrimination and opposition to voting rights.
“I regularly saw raw, unvarnished discrimination against a whole people because of the color of their skin,” Sessions said on Tuesday of growing up in the South. “I can remember riding on an all-white school bus and passing every morning an all-black school bus. Just one look at the buses was enough to know that separate was not equal.”
King’s life, he added, “changed hearts and minds. Those changed souls then changed the laws of this land.”
One of those laws, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, is a law Sessions called “intrusive” last year. In 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down parts of the law, he called it “good news ... for the South.” Several decades earlier, while he served as a U.S. attorney in Alabama, he prosecuted three African American civil rights activists for voter fraud.
Sessions’ stance on voting rights and criminal justice has led to a myriad of accusations of racial bias over the years, including by King’s widow, who in 1986 penned a letter to Congress opposing Sessions’ federal judge nomination.
“The irony of Mr. Sessions’ nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods,” she wrote. “I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama, but also on the progress we have made toward fulfilling my husband’s dream.”
Other testimony during the nomination process alleged that Sessions had called groups like the NAACP “un-American” and forced “civil rights down the throats of people;” had referred to his black assistant as “boy;” and had said a white lawyer was a “disgrace to his race” for representing black clients.
Vanita Gupta, the head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division under President Barack Obama and now president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, called Sessions’ speech “beyond ironic.”
“Make no mistake,” Gupta told The Washington Post. “If Dr. King were alive today, he would be protesting outside of Jeff Sessions’s office.”