Tag Archives: Coretta Scott King

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.


Historians Begin to Look at ACORN’s Impact

Professor Carroll speaking as Fred Brooks, Robert Fisher, and Gary Delgao (from right to left) listen to the Lessons from ACORN Panel at OAH

Milwaukee   If it has been said that newspapers “write the first draft of history,” perhaps it is panels like Lessons from ACORN organized by Oregon State Professor Marisa Chappell at the national conference of the Organization of American Historians that starts to outline the second draft.   At the least an excellent panel of very knowledgeable folks had been assembled to take a crack at it.

Fred Brooks from Georgia State argued that there was not yet a full appreciation of the “radical vision of social change” that drove ACORN, citing the Peoples’ Platform and its 309 points as evidence.  He also talked about a great personal story from an action in Atlanta done by 200 at a conference where Coretta Scott King was speaking and the grace with which she wrapped the ACORN demonstrators demands in Martin’s legacy saying that “if Martin were alive he would have been protesting with us,” and the meeting with bankers the action forced.

Robert Fisher of the University of Connecticut and editor of the evaluation of ACORN in The People Shall Rule drew comparisons from a recent conference on community organizing he had attended in France where many argued that community organizing was dangerous because it could be “disruptive of social engineering by the state,” which Fisher thought was the whole point of ACORN’s “conflict over power.”  Fisher made an insightful remark about the efforts of ACORN increasingly in the early years of the 21st Century to “build bridges” to other organizations and the intriguing promise it had shown in steps to build “a united front” where others had been more sectarian.  Fisher also rejoined later in the panel on my point about working now on an organizing model where the organization “eats what it kills” to also add correctly that ACORN had pioneered in “eating what we won” as well as evidenced by the H&R Block campaigns and many others in the 21st Century.

Professor Carroll of the Rochester Institute of Technology nailed a critical part of the ACORN history as a “misreading of the role of conflict in making social change” which allowed too many of its critics to advance and too few others to move to protect the organization failing to understand how conflict creates change and challenges power.

Gary Delgado, former staffer and author of the still classic book about ACORN, Building the Movement, rattled off a number of observations collected in his 40 years of close observation of the organization.  He worried that the “vacuum” created by the organization shuttering its doors in late 2010 had not been filled and proving difficult to fill because there were not other “national” organizations that had “centralized” operations that could be effective and “were not afraid to make enemies.”  The use of direct action and the singular voice for poor people were also now missing.  Delgado found agreement in nailing the fact that the attack on ACORN had been “racialized” and the opposition that mounted around its voter registration work was rooted in ACORN’s effectiveness in registering African-Americans and Latinos to register and vote.  At the same time he noted, perhaps controversially, that times had changed and ACORN was unprepared for the “air war” when attacked and his own view that “boots on the ground are necessary but not sufficient” to protect the organization.

In my remarks I responded to the question posed by Professor Chappell about how organizing strategies at ACORN had changed to address alterations in the way state power worked by detailing our expansion program designed to adapt to the devolution of federal resources and decision making to states.  I also told the stories of our living wage initiatives and victories that greater statewide capacity and infrastructure allowed, citing the statistics in my Citizen Wealth chapters.

The discussion had been engaging and the questions way too brief, but the presentations had resonated with many, so perhaps there will be fruit borne in the future from the seeds planted in Milwaukee.  John Atlas in his Seeds of Change began and ended his remarks noting forcefully the unreliability and inaccuracies of the New York Times and other media outlets in being able to understand or interpret the ACORN story.  There seemed to be consensus in Milwaukee that the first draft from newspapers absolutely needed to go to rewrite!