Coretta Scott King on Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Little Rock   During the US Senate debate on the confirmation of Senator Jeff Sessions, which was ultimately achieved, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced in the debate for trying to read the following letter in opposition to his approval.

Statement of Coretta Scott King on the Nomination of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III for the United States District Court Southern District of Alabama.

Senate Judiciary Committee

Thursday, March 13, 1986

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee: Thank you for allowing me this opportunity to express my strong opposition to the nomination of Jefferson Sessions for a federal district judgeship for the Southern District of Alabama. My longstanding commitment which I shared with my husband, Martin, to protect and enhance the rights of Black Americans, rights which include equal access to the democratic process, compels me to testify today.

Civil rights leaders, including my husband and Albert Turner, have fought long and hard to achieve free and unfettered access to the ballot box. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge. This simply cannot be allowed to happen. Mr. Sessions’ conduct as U.S. Attorney, from his politically motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights laws, indicates that he lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge.

The Voting Rights Act was, and still is, vitally important to the future of democracy in the United States. I was privileged to join Martin and many others during the Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights in 1965. Martin was particularly impressed by the determination to get the franchise of blacks in Selma and neighboring Perry County. As he wrote, “Certainly no community in the history of the Negro struggle has responded with the enthusiasm of Selma and her neighboring town of Marion. Where Birmingham depended largely upon students and unemployed adults (to participate in non-violent protest of the denial of the franchise), Selma has involved fully 10 percent of the Negro population in active demonstrations, and at least half the Negro population of Marion was arrested on one day.” Martin was referring of course to a group that included the defendants recently prosecuted for assisting elderly and illiterate blacks to exercise that franchise. ln fact, Martin anticipated from the depth of their commitment twenty years ago, that a united political organization would remain in Perry County long after the other marchers had left. This organization, the Perry County Civic League, started by Mr. Turner, Mr. Hogue, and others as Martin predicted, continued “to direct the drive for votes and other rights.” In the years since the Voting Rights Act was passed, Black Americans in Marion, Selma and elsewhere have made important strides in their struggle to participate actively in the electoral process. The number of Blacks registered to vote in key Southern states has doubled since 1965. This would not have been possible without the Voting Rights Act.

However, Blacks still fall far short of having equal participation in the electoral process. Particularly in the South, efforts continue to be made to deny Blacks access to the polls, even where Blacks constitute the majority of the voters. It has been a long up-hill struggle to keep alive the vital legislation that protects the most fundamental right to vote. A person who has exhibited so much hostility to the enforcement of those laws, and thus, to the exercise of those rights by Black people should not be elevated to the federal bench.

The irony of Mr. Sessions’ nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods. Twenty years ago, when we marched from Selma to Montgomery, the fear of voting was real, as the broken bones and bloody heads in Selma and Marion bore witness. As my husband wrote at the time, “it was not just a sick imagination that conjured up the vision of a public official, sworn to uphold the law, who forced an inhuman march upon hundreds of Negro children; who ordered the Rev. James Bevel to be chained to his sickbed; who clubbed a Negro woman registrant, and who callously inflicted repeated brutalities and indignities upon nonviolent Negroes peacefully petitioning for their constitutional right to vote.”

Free exercise of voting rights is so fundamental to American democracy that we can not tolerate any form of infringement of those rights. Of all the groups who have been disenfranchised in our nation’s history, none has struggled longer or suffered more in the attempt to win the vote than Black citizens. No group has had access to the ballot box denied so persistently and intently. Over the past century, a broad array of schemes have been used in attempts to block the Black vote. The range of techniques developed with the purpose of repressing black voting rights run the gamut from the — straightforward application of brutality against black citizens who tried to vote to such legalized frauds as “grandfather clause” exclusions and rigged literacy tests.

The actions taken by Mr. Sessions in regard to the 1984 voting fraud prosecutions represent just one more technique used to intimidate Black voters and thus deny them this most precious franchise. The investigations into the absentee voting process were conducted only in the Black Belt counties where blacks had finally achieved political power in the local government. Whites had been using the absentee process to their advantage for years, without incident. Then, when Blacks realizing its strength, began to use it with success, criminal investigations were begun.

In these investigations, Mr. Sessions, as U.S. Attorney, exhibited an eagerness to bring to trial and convict three leaders of the Perry County Civic League including Albert Turner despite evidence clearly demonstrating their innocence of any wrongdoing. Furthermore, in initiating the case, Mr. Sessions ignored allegations of similar behavior by whites, choosing instead to chill the exercise of the franchise by blacks by his misguided investigation. In fact, Mr. Sessions sought to punish older black civil rights activists, advisors and colleagues of my husband, who had been key figures in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. These were persons who, realizing the potential of the absentee vote among Blacks, had learned to use the process within the bounds of legality and had taught others to do the same. The only sin they committed was being too successful in gaining votes.

The scope and character of the investigations conducted by Mr. Sessions also warrant grave concern. Witnesses were selectively chosen in accordance with the favorability of their testimony to the government’s case. Also, the prosecution illegally withheld from the defense critical statements made by witnesses. Witnesses who did testify were pressured and intimidated into submitting the “correct” testimony. Many elderly blacks were visited multiple times by the FBI who then hauled them over 180 miles by bus to a grand jury in Mobile when they could more easily have testified at a grand jury twenty miles away in Selma. These voters, and others, have announced they are now never going to vote again.

I urge you to consider carefully Mr. Sessions’ conduct in these matters. Such a review, I believe, raises serious questions about his commitment to the protection of the voting rights of all American citizens and consequently his fair and unbiased judgment regarding this fundamental right. When the circumstances and facts surrounding the indictments of Al Turner, his wife, Evelyn, and Spencer Hogue are analyzed, it becomes clear that the motivation was political, and the result frightening — the wide-scale chill of the exercise of the ballot for blacks, who suffered so much to receive that right in the first place. Therefore, it is my strongly-held view that the appointment of Jefferson Sessions to the federal bench would irreparably damage the work of my husband, Al Turner, and countless others who risked their lives and freedom over the past twenty years to ensure equal participation in our democratic system.

The exercise of the franchise is an essential means by which our citizens ensure that those who are governing will be responsible. My husband called it the number one civil right. The denial of access to the ballot box ultimately results in the denial of other fundamental rights. For, it ‘ is only when the poor and disadvantaged are empowered that they are able to participate actively in the solutions to their own problems.

We still have a long way to go before we can say that minorities no longer need be concerned about discrimination at the polls. Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans are grossly underrepresented at every level of government in America. If we are going to make our timeless dream of justice through democracy a reality, we must take every possible step to ensure that the spirit and intent of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution is honored.

The federal courts hold a unique position in our constitutional system, ensuring that minorities and other citizens without political power have a forum in which to vindicate their rights. Because of his unique role, it is essential that the people selected to be federal judges respect the basic tenets of our legal system: respect for individual rights and a commitment to equal justice for all. The integrity of the Courts, and thus the rights they protect, can only be maintained if citizens feel confident that those selected as federal judges will be able to judge with fairness others holding differing views.

I do not believe Jefferson Sessions possesses the requisite judgment, competence, and sensitivity to the rights guaranteed by the federal civil rights laws to qualify for appointment to the federal district court. Based on his record, 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 everywhere toward fulfilling my husband’s dream that he envisioned over twenty years ago. I therefore urge the Senate Judiciary Committee to deny his confirmation.

I thank you for allowing me to share my views.

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Karl Rove, the IAF, and Protest Advice Everywhere We Turn

Little Rock   When Karl Rove, the George W. Bush hardcore Republican consigliere and now Fox News favorite and Wall Street Journal op-ed pundit approvingly quotes Michael Gecan, veteran community organizer and co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the Saul Alinsky legacy community organizing training and support outfit, it is hard to prevent a momentary shutter surging through your body. It’s like walking into your house and noticing things aren’t where they belong, and there’s been a burglar loose. Rove stealing lines from the IAF, are you kidding me?!?

Certainly it isn’t news that the IAF, back to the days of Alinsky, has had an uncomfortable relationship with mass social movements and their marches and protests. In Alinsky’s day, they employed the tactics of protest, perhaps threatening as much as delivering, but movement was not their model then as they advocated for the building of peoples’ organizations, community-wide representative of assemblages built on the framework of the labor federations. In his memoir, Nick Von Hoffman, Alinsky’s chief lieutenant in those early days, discounts their antipathy towards movements, but it is hard to take all of the many words out of Alinsky’s mouth. Arguably, it is even less their organizing model now, as they advocate a careful process of deep organization building which specializes in large assembly accountability sessions and developing almost symbiotic relationships to mayors and governors to deliver programs and results. One of the more troubling stories in Gecan’s own book about his experiences recounts a behind the scenes IAF transactional outreach to then Mayor Rudy Giuliani to offer him an alternative path while protests of vicious police brutality were in the streets, so it is not that the IAF don’t use protests at some level to leverage power.

Regardless of Rove’s appropriation, Gecan’s piece in the New York Daily News titled “How Democrats Are Getting Played” is mainly meant as a slap down of the Democrats, much of which is spot on, including their inability to stick to a persistent, long term strategy and listen to much of anything or anyone that doesn’t represent huge donations whether the rich or special interests. Unfortunately, the story he chose to tell is a pile-on about the union defeat in Wisconsin at the hands of Governor Scott Walker. He tells it by slamming the protests and protestors, which many in Wisconsin still feel were essential in the fight and created long term benefits, rather than simply firing his guns at the recall, which almost everyone agrees was a desperate move and a hopelessly futile tactical defeat.

The mass protests and protestors are not party-centric or Democratic Party organizing events. Everyone can rightly join in, as Gecan does, in criticizing the Democrats and their clueless strategy and tactics on an ongoing basis. But, in the same way Gecan correctly argues that people need to organize and engage the Trump-base in order to find the way forward, he misses the fact that we also have to organize and engage the people and deep-seated energy and anger behind these protests.

In the end Gecan was misused by Rove, even though he left the door open for such a theft, because he beats the same drum that we’ve been beating endlessly, that we have to “have an offense” and can’t win just through resistance and a defense. The problem is not the protests. They are invaluable, and let feet on the street never be stopped. The problem is the plan, and the absence of one. In the meantime with all of the freelance critics of protestors and, hopefully, a burgeoning movement for change, we need to keep our house unified and undivided, while we put the pieces together.

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Looking at the Indivisible Guide for Progressive Tea Party

from the Indivisible Guide Facebook page

New Orleans   Some groups are forming in Congressional Districts as part of the resistance to President Trump’s agenda and are deliberately mimicking the Tea Party’s earlier playbook when they were opposing any and all Obama. Several groups are using Indivisible in their names having been inspired by the Indivisible Guide, which is described as having been written by former Congressional staffers. The Guide is a straightforward how-to piece on going after members of Congress, referred to throughout as MOC’s.

The authors are somewhat unlikely protestors. The names identified by their Twitter handles, which seems so “Age of Trump” it almost made me pause, call themselves the Indivisible Team. They include a 40-year veteran lawyer with his name on a corporate law firm in New York, a public interest lawyer based in San Francisco, an Arlington, Virginia DC beltway woman who seems to be working with and perhaps formerly worked for Tom Perriello, a one term Democratic Congressman who has announced as a candidate for Governor of Virginia, and was a cofounder of the online petitioning group, Avaaz, and finally a health and immigration policy analyst with experience with the National Immigration Law Center. In fact they probably are not really protestors so much as advocates with deep experience as lobbyists, who see this as a hammer that they have seen frighten the bejesus out of Congressional representatives in the past, and have a identified a moment where people are looking to strike a nail back home.

That said, read as a lobbying guide, rather than an organizing program, the Indivisible Guide has real value. It gets to the nuts and bolts including phone script role plays that are reality based. Their tactical descriptions and discussion of preparations for town hall meetings with the local representatives is about the best any organizer could hope to read if they were planning an action at such an event. Their advice on triggering the press for even small 10-person actions with social media and how to employ such tools in organizing their protests also is accurate and helpful. The short story is that for those of us who read – and write – manuals about organizing models and tools, they did a good job.

At the same time, these are not people looking to create big social change or drain the swamp. They totally believe in this system and how it works. They advise against getting caught up in discussions about policy or programs, saying progressives don’t have a chance. In their view this guide and the call of the moment is all about resistance.

I appreciated their transparency and the value of their guide, but resistance without a plan or program that takes the status quo as certain and bounded rigidly by the election cycle, is a stopgap at best and misses the moment and the opportunity, while risking seeming like nothing more than protest for protest sake. Right now protestors are in it for the win, not just to hear their own voices yell, and they need a guide for that strategy as well, not simply a well assembled how-to tactical manual on grassroots lobbying.

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Is a Progressive Tea Party a Good Idea?

New Orleans   The other day I was warning that progressives speaking out and organizing against some policies and programs of the new administration were already being lectured by the mainstream media, as some call it, about how boycotts should be conducted and whether or not anarchists attaching themselves to demonstrations could be disciplined. Today’s story conflates some of what is happening around the country with the Tea Party. Some seem to embrace the comparison and there’s never any harm in organizers adopting tactics and strategy that work, but is this a good idea or just reductionism to the lowest denominator that will sow confusion in the future?

First, it is worth remembering that the Tea Party and its moment have passed. No one really pretends that anything other than a sentiment and a diffuse base exists from its effort some years ago, regardless of how skillfully Trump seized the opportunity. At the least we need to differentiate anything we might be trying to do now as something more than a flash in the pan that can be endured while it lasts and then ignored. Secondly, please recall the recent history when the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader for the Republicans essentially slammed the door on the Tea-people and their elected representatives and stonewalled and marginalized them. Tactics and strategy without organization are always going to end up walled into a box canyon.

Some former Tea organizers are kind about it all in some ways, referring to efforts in various communities around the country as nothing more than good “civics.” They are particularly talking about efforts to rally around Congressional offices and participate in town hall meetings organized when the local representatives come home during the upcoming recess. Reportedly, one clever group responded to its representative’s claim that no meeting space was available by booking space in each of the four counties he represented to call his bluff. Needless to say, be careful what you ask for, since such public forums could turn out to be proxy fights and shout outs between the right and left, which will be hard to count as a tactical advance. If it’s working, run with it, but this could be a flickering flame without something more substantial.

There’s energy and fire in the country now that would seem to demand something new, not something derivative. The grassroots is grabbing the straws that they have seen available, so in absence of something better, that’s good news. We’ll have to take a longer look at these self-described “indivisible” chapters and their playbook. The base is moving faster than the wannabe leaders and strategists meeting in their conference rooms and think tanks.

If something new and stronger is going to be built from this unique opportunity, now is the time. The tail is wagging, but the head is lagging. The progressive body has to be put together quickly for the long race, not just the current dash.

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Meeting Populism Head On, Means Bringing Back the Base with Organizing

New Orleans   So resistance and protests might be working to pushback some of the assault on basic American principles, rights, and obligations to people, and we’re getting a little help from the courts, although who knows how long that might last, but I have to beat my usual drum a bit and remind that much of the appeal of Trump’s populist call is to people who rightfully should be our base. If we want to convert them, we have to engage them first, and that means real commitment and work in organizing.

It’s not just me. I find support for this position on all sides of the argument.

Aaron Bartley, who runs a housing development and community organizing operation called, PUSH Buffalo, circulated a piece carried in the Huffington Post called “How Our Cities Will Save Us From Trump.” He makes the interesting observation as an organizer, that despite the fact that he has emerged as White House puppeteer-in-charge, Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon has at best only a tenuous hold on their putative base. Making a point about street-heat, Aaron argues,

Bannon has done none of this painstaking work. While his hardline base of rural and Tea Party suburbanites is substantial, it is dispersed and spends far more time in chat rooms than town squares. The power of online networks and propaganda outlets is not to be discounted—after all it has propelled Bannon to his status as a diabolical global overlord—but the fascists’ lack of street mobilization capacity and their distance from capital’s key assets will neuter them in the next phase of urban-centric mass mobilization.

Although Aaron’s main theme is that diverse coalitions for change formed in the cities, including those with capital and innovation, are hedges against the worst of it, implicit in his Bannon point is an argument that if we were willing to challenge the ideology and practice at the heart of his base – as organizers – it’s core weaknesses might turn into our strengths.

Another former ACORN organizer, Jeff Elmer, reconnected with a piece he thought instructive called “How to Culture Jam a Populist in Four East Steps” by Andres Miguel Rondon a native-Venezuelan in the caracaschronicles.com. Rondon was comparing the lengthy standoff between Hugo Chavez and his brand of Latin American populism with the elites he attacked and who opposed him for years with much the same arguments as those being thrown at Trump now. Having visited some years ago briefly, it’s less than a perfect fit, but one piece of Rondon’s advice from the right side of the street is exactly correct when he advises:

actually go to the slums and to the countryside. And not for a speech, or a rally, but for game of dominoes or to dance salsa – to show they were Venezuelans too, that they had tumbao and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show they were real. And no, this is not populism by other means. It is the only way of establishing your standing. It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization.

Of course Rondon is a sad liar, as Trump would say, because there’s nothing easy about that 4th step he recommends, because he is also implicitly calling for us to engage and organize, and there’s nothing easy about organizing, even though that is what just might save America right now, even more than cities and dominoes.

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Report from Behind the Bunker, that What We’re Doing is Working

New Orleans   There’s no reason to get the big head. It’ll be a long four years. Or longer. Eventually, they’ll get this right or at least righter. Nonetheless, there’s some evidence that we, the big WE, the collective we of all progressive Americans and maybe more, including those who are not progressive but at least aren’t haters, anti-immigrants, anti-women, anti-Muslim, are having some real impact, and that Trump is even semi-getting it, as well as others.

An article, obviously fueled by leaks from the White House, to Wall Street Journal reporters Carol Lee and Peter Nicholas, quotes the President telling his top aides last weekend, while protests were blossoming like wild flowers at airports all over the country, that, “This has to go better.” Supposedly he tried to straighten out his chaotic staff structure where chaos has prevailed for most of the last two weeks. The always wacky, wild-eyed editorial writers for the Journal were even quoted in a story in their competitor, The New York Times, calling the travel ban rollout “incompetent,” though that seems a kindness. Karl Rove, George W. Bush’s Rasputin, writing in the op-ed page of the Journal spared no words in his criticism and included a grade-school level primer in his column on how quasi-normal governments would have gotten away with such an order.

And then in the most interesting bonbon to come our way, here’s former Reagan speechwriter and hardcore Republican stalwart, Peggy Noonan, calling out a very clear warning that allows us to count coup even while a long way from winning the battle or the war. Here she goes:

The handling of the order allowed the organized left to show its might, igniting big demonstrations throughout major cities. And not only downtown – they had to make it out to the airport to give the media the pictures, and they did. In Washington I witnessed a demonstration of many thousands of people carrying individualized, hand-letter signs.

If all this was spontaneous, the left is strong indeed. If was a matter of superior organization, that’s impressive too.

You should never let your enemy know its own strength. They discovered it in the Women’s March, know it more deeply now, and demonstrated it to Democrats on the Hill. It was after the demonstrations that Democratic senators started boycotting the confirmation hearings. They now have their own tea party to push them around.

The handling of the order further legitimized the desire of many congressional Republicans to distance themselves from the president, something they feel they’ll eventually have to do anyway because they know how to evaluate political horse flesh, and when they look at them they see Chief Crazy Horse.

Sorry about Noonan’s Crazy Horse reference, she went cheap there, but she’s going deep the rest of the way. There is no Facebook fawning here. No Twitter triumphalism. She’s a veteran, and she knows effective political organization when she sees it, and says so.

Can we be our own “tea party?” That might be something to be proud of right now, but we have to be careful. Our strength is showing, but it can’t dissolve into arrogance and can be frittered away without tactical and strategic care. We also have the Times poking us about “black” teams and anarchist growth that no one controls, but they will try to make us own. A Times columnist even tried to lecture all of its readers, and all of us, about the proper way to target and conduct a boycott, while whitewashing Uber. Both of good reminders of how quickly the worm will turn.

We’re not winning, but we’re holding our own. At least for now. We live and work in interesting times, and we’re adding our spice to the stew. Nothing but good can come of this.

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