Jeff Sessions wanted KKK lynching case dropped, according to colleague
Junior Senator Jeff Sessions is set to begin his confirmation hearing to be appointed President-elect Trump’s attorney general Tuesday. He’s no doubt hoping it goes better than the last time he was up for a big job. Back in 1986, President Ronald Reagan wanted to make Sessions a federal judge, but he was denied the position — only the second person nominated to the district court bench to be rejected in nearly 50 years — thanks to a former colleague who testified to the nominee’s unsavory, racist past.
In addition to four justice department lawyers who testified that Sessions had once called the NAACP and ALCU “un-American” organizations that cause harm by forcing civil rights “down the throats of people,” Thomas Figures, who was an assistant U.S. attorney in Alabama when Sessions was U.S. attorney, said that the latter had frequently called him “boy” and warned him to “be careful what you say to white folks” after Figures admonished his secretary for an inappropriate comment. With regard to civil rights cases in general, Figures said Sessions once remarked “I wish I could decline on all of them,” and one DOJ lawyer testified Sessions said a white civil rights attorney might be “a disgrace to his race.”
Sessions, then and today, claims the testimonies are all malarky. How, he argues, could he be racist when he sent one KKK member to the chair and another to prison for life for the lynching of a black man?
Sessions is referring to the murder of Michael Donald, who was abducted, beaten, strangled, and hung by Klan members Henry Hays and James Knowles in 1981. Sessions and Figures worked on the prosecution of the murderers, and Hays, who was sentenced to death and executed in 1997, remains the only known Klansman sentenced to death for the killing of a black man in the 20th century. Sessions credits this to his insistence the case be pursued at the local level versus the federal, which lacked an option for the death penalty at the time.
Now, to me, the fact that Sessions did his job isn’t exactly proof the man isn’t racist. It wasn’t for Figures either, who testified at the 1986 confirmation hearing that Sessions actually had wanted to drop the case against the two Klan members in “the early stages of the case.”
“Mr. Sessions did attempt to persuade me to discontinue pursuit of the case,” Figures said, according to The Daily Beast. Before the perpetrators were found, Sessions also allegedly called the case a waste of time and warned Figures he would not be assigned to it should the killers ever come to light. While never giving Figures a direct order, Sessions, he said “All of [Sessions’] statements were well calculated to induce me to drop the case.” Nevertheless, Figures pursued an FBI investigation, and eventually, Knowles and Hays were arrested in 1983. It was only at this point that Sessions came on board to the case that he would later cite as proof he wasn’t racist.
According to Figures, Sessions’ behavior while prosecuting the case didn’t exactly showcase him as a paragon of equality and social justice. Figures and another attorney, Barry Kowalski, both recalled a moment when Sessions, upon learning Klansmen smoked marijuana, remarked “he used to have respect for that organization but now he no longer does, knowing they use drugs.” Sessions admitted making the statement, but said he was joking. Kowalski similarly chalked it up to “operating room humor.”
Figures, who is black, didn’t find it very humorous.
“Whatever Mr. Sessions’ view of the Klan may be today, the remark that he made during the Donald case, indicating that he only objected the the Klan because of drug use by its members, was not made in a joking manner,” he testified. “Mr. Kowalski, on the other hand, apparently did not take this remark as seriously as I did.”
[The Daily Beast | Photo: Getty]