Four days before Donald Trump attacked him as “all talk” and tweeted that his district was “crime infested” and “falling apart,” Georgia Congressman John Lewis testified against Trump’s pick for attorney general, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions. “Those who are committed to equal justice in our society wonder whether Senator Sessions’s call for law and order will mean today what it meant in Alabama when I was coming up back then,” Lewis said, when “the rule of law was used to violate the human and civil rights of the poor, the dispossessed, people of color.”
Lewis was describing days like March 7, 1965, when he was brutally beaten in Selma while marching for the right to vote. One of the people who marched directly behind Lewis on Bloody Sunday was Albert Turner Jr., a top aide to Dr. Martin Luther King. In the now-iconic photo of Lewis being clubbed by an Alabama state trooper, Turner can be seen running from the police.
Twenty years later, on the 20th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Sessions, as US Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, prosecuted Turner, his wife Evelyn, and his fellow civil-rights activist Spencer Hogue on voter-fraud charges, claiming that they had illegally helped black voters cast absentee ballots. The three were accused of improperly collecting and, in a few cases, filling out the ballots on behalf of elderly and sometimes illiterate voters—a tactic that was frequently used by white candidates in Alabama but never prosecuted. Sessions was the first US Attorney to charge civil-rights activists with voter fraud since the Voting Rights Act became law. The trial occurred in Selma, of all places, and the jury acquitted the defendants of all charges after just three hours of deliberation.
The voter-fraud prosecutions were a major reason why the Senate rejected Sessions for a federal judgeship after he was nominated by Ronald Reagan in 1986. In addition, lawyers at the Justice Department and the US Attorney’s Office testified that Sessions had called the NAACP and the ACLU “communist-inspired” and “un-American” groups that were “trying to force civil rights down the throats of people”; addressed the first black prosecutor in Alabama as “boy” and told him “to be careful what he said to white folks”; and dubbed a white civil-rights lawyer “a disgrace to his race.”
Back then, Senator Ted Kennedy called Sessions “a throwback to a shameful era which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past.” Coretta Scott King told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Sessions would “irreparably damage the work of my husband.”