Jeff Sessions’ Other Civil Rights Problem
Thomas J. Sugrue, a professor of history and social and cultural analysis at New York University, is the author of “Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North.” Thumbnail Image - By Gage Skidmore
In 1986, the Republican-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee torpedoed Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Jeff Sessions to the federal bench. As sworn testimony there revealed, Mr. Sessions, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, had referred to the N.A.A.C.P. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (founded by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) as “un-American” and “Communist inspired.” He had joked that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “O.K.” until he discovered some of its members smoked pot, and had accused a white attorney who supported voting rights of being a race traitor.
The details revealed in this hearing, troublesome enough to sink his nomination, are surfacing again, now that President-elect Donald J. Trump has selected him to be his attorney general. But it’s worth looking beyond those notorious hearings to Mr. Sessions’s more recent actions as well.
Eight years after his failed nomination, Mr. Sessions was elected Alabama’s attorney general. While he held the position for only two years — using it as a steppingstone for his campaign for the Senate — he left an indelible mark. He used the power of his office to fight to preserve Alabama’s long history of separate and unequal education.
Mr. Sessions became attorney general four decades after the Supreme Court struck down segregated schools in its landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. In the intervening years, racial segregation diminished somewhat, but separate and unequal continued in another form. In 1956, as a way to sidestep Brown, Alabama voters amended the state Constitution to deprive students of a right to public education. Public support for school funding collapsed in its aftermath.
As a result, by the early 1990s, huge disparities in funding separated Alabama’s haves and have-nots. Alabama’s wealthiest school district (and also one of its whitest), Mountain Brook, in suburban Birmingham, spent nearly twice as much per student as the state’s poorest, Roanoke, in a declining manufacturing town about two hours southeast. Poor schools often lacked even rudimentary facilities, including science labs. They struggled to pay teachers, even to repair dilapidated school buses. Half of Alabama’s school buildings lacked air conditioning. Underfunded schools had a particularly hard time meeting the needs of disabled students, whom they were required to support under federal law. ...