Coretta Scott King sat three rows in front of my parents at my college graduation in 1976. Her daughter Yolanda and I were classmates at Smith College. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently attempted to read Mrs. King’s 1986 letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee objecting to President Reagan’s nomination of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions to a federal district judgeship only to be silenced by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, it hit home for me.
I found President Trump’s Cabinet picks to be a basket of, well, you know, with Sessions being the worst. Mrs. King’s words served to cement that opinion when she stated Sessions used his then-position as U.S. attorney “to intimidate and chill free exercise of the ballot by citizens.” I urge you to read her letter and then realize this man is our attorney general. Our daily lives are affected by the actions and inactions of the Department of Justice, which this man now leads. In 1986 the Senate Judiciary Committee heeded Mrs. King’s words and denied Sessions his appointment as a federal judge. In 2017 the Republican-led Senate ignored her, and Trump got his early supporter and policy adviser into that key position as our nation’s top cop.
We are asked to understand that Sessions is a “changed man” and to put all doubts about him aside. No, I can’t do that. I’m with those who refer to Sessions as a throwback. Does he understand that Black Lives Matter? Does he understand that Black Votes Matter? Will he allow families to be torn apart to keep Trump’s campaign promise to get tough on immigration? Will he conduct or impede the vital investigation into Trump’s Russian issues and his now-departed National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn? What about all those other questionable Trump matters, too numerous to mention, that merit investigation? Will he protect LGBTQ rights or curtail them? Here’s a hint — as a senator he voted against the Matthew Shepard Act and in favor of the Federal Marriage Amendment.
But we don't even need hints anymore — Sessions is already taking action. The Justice Department announced this month it's no longer fighting an injunction blocking Obama-era guidance that protects transgender students under Title IX. Trump's press secretary announced yesterday that Trump and his administration believe trans rights are a "states' rights issue." Where have we heard that before?
I think we know who Jefferson Beauregard Sessions is. Will he stand up to President Trump? I am confident that he will not. Sessions supported Trump from the beginning, so why would he change now?
What I find remarkable is that in a country with vast legal talent capable of leading the Department of Justice into the 21st century, President Trump selects a 70-year-old man standing in a bygone era most Americans have moved past. Bob Ferguson, the attorney general for the state of Washington, comes to mind as an intelligent, energetic attorney able to do the job. Ferguson showed us that the law has compassion, that the law is able to help people and come to their defense; that the law can be used for good. He understands the Constitution and the proper role of the AG's office. Ferguson also has that rare ability to explain the law in a way that it is easily understandable to those without a law degree. He is just one of many Trump could have chosen from to give us modern leadership in the Justice Department.
When I saw Mrs. King back in 1976 at my college graduation, she was seated alone looking around at the crowd of parents and family being seated before the graduation ceremony began. She looked sad, and I never understood why until recently. I would imagine she missed Yolanda’s father. That family gave up so much to make us a better nation and show us a way to become a better people living and striving together. To turn our backs on them now with so much work left to do would be tragic. It is up to us as a people of conscience to keep that dream alive. Watch everything Attorney General Sessions does or declines to do. Make your voice heard. If we all shout loud enough, they will have to hear us even if they don’t want to.
SUSAN SURFTONE is a musician and just released the EP The Magician.