Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

No to Jeff Sessions, a southwest Alabama good ole boy

By Nancy Scheper-Hughes

This week Congress will  be vetting Jeff Sessions appointment as U.S. attorney general. It is unimaginable that Sessions could be empowered to represent "law, justice and the American way." For most of his public career Sessions has represented white interests.

Jeff Sessions Yesterday, representatives of the NAACP were arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, during a protest in which they demanded that Jeff Sessions "self-disqualify" as Trump’s pick for attorney general. Sessions had been denied a federal judgeship based on evidence that during his years as Alabama attorney general he had demeaned his black associates, calling them “boys,” and expressed hostility toward civil rights organizations and civil rights workers.

Worst of all, Sessions had joked about the KKK during an investigation into the 1981 lynching of a 19-year-old African American man, Michael Donald, in Montgomery. The investigation confirmed that a gang of KKK murders had savagely beaten and killed Michael Donald, whose body was hung from a tree. As Alabama attorney general, Sessions also harassed black voters and oversaw the executions of mentally and cognitively disabled people. Sessions supported a grossly unequal distribution of public funds favoring private white schools over black public schools.

Some background might help. Sessions was born in Selma in 1946 and educated in Camden at Alabama’s all-white Wilcox County High School. As a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worker in Selma and in Wilcox County in 1967-1968 I saw close up what white power looked like. Despite the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black people were harassed for voting in Wilcox County and elsewhere in southwest Alabama. My black SNCC co-worker and I were run out of Camden (the county seat of Wilcox County) by Alabama police waving guns in our faces.

Throughout Wilcox County I recorded, transcribed and published  interviews with black tenant farmers whose cotton allotment checks were stolen by  plantation owners, with black women who were denied welfare or healthcare unless they agreed to be “spayed” (the term used by health and welfare officials), with women who were raped by their landlords, and husbands who protested and were pistol whipped. On one occasion our car of four SNCC workers was driven off the road by local KKK members.

Black tenant farmers and their families were hungry and their children undernourished. They were not allowed to raise crops of their own and had to purchase food with script at the plantation owner’s store. Our group, led by civil rights lawyer for SNCC, filed a a class-action suit, Peoples vs. the Department of Agriculture , in 1968 charging that black tenant farmers were being denied access to USDA federal entitlements to food stamps and free food commodities. We took three busloads of tenant farmers to the federal circuit courtroom in Washington, D.C., to testify to the court alongside medical evaluations by the late Dr. Raymond Wheeler and Robert Coles testifying to the diseases of malnutrition present in the population — anemias, vitamin deficiencies, protein deficiencies and pellagra.

The federal court of three judges decided that the USDA food program was not intended to feed hungry people but rather to unload surplus food commodities to sustain the agricultural industry. We went home emptyhanded and several  of the brave black plaintiffs were thrown off the land by their plantation owners. The KKK was the ruling party. Jury panels were all white. This was the normative code of injustice in south and southwest Alabama.

Sessions will argue that times have changed. He said he came to reject the KKK  but it was on the grounds that some of the members smoked dope. Yes, times have changed in rural southwest Alabama. The cotton plantations have closed down in the  Blackbelt counties of southwest Alabama. Whites have fled Camden, and today Wilcox County High School is a " 100% Black minority School in which  99% of the students are economically disadvantaged .” Sessions has argued against public school funding.

Throughout his career Sessions has displayed his personal loyalties to the good ole boys’ code of white power. His appointment would be a disgrace.

Update: Nancy Scheper-Hughes responds to the comments, on Feb. 3, 2017

I acknowledge the heartfelt responses to my strong critique of the confirmation of Sen. Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general. One wants to be open to the possibility of  spiritual and political "conversion." The Jeff Sessions that I have heard about in the rural black communities of southwest Alabama may not be the Jeff Sessions of today. I certainly hope so. But neither can Sessions erase his historical record, a piece of which I will open for discussion.

One respondent was offended by my use of the term “Alabama good ole boy.” Another stated that [my] “implication that Southern means stupid" and that [describing Sessions as] a Good Old Boy is unfair and sexist and racist. Was I perhaps stigmatizing a part of the Deep South?  Our famous Berkeley sociologist, Erving Goffman, described the "stigma of place" as a social reality.  Examples could be  such terms as the flats, the ghetto, the inner city (which Trump described as a hellhole), the sterile suburbs, the rust belt and even the gated community. Communities do have cultures during certain parts of their history. The black belt counties of Southwest Alabama were among the worst examples of the violent application of  Jim Crow laws enforced by white power, racist plantation owners and the KKK in the 1960s up through the end of the 20 th century. Vestiges of the KKK still exist and terrorize people.  Stupid is not the term I would use, but violent and racist describe the  terrorist climate there for Black tenant farmers, especially young Black males.

In Southern Alabama the ‘60s and 70’s’ the term  ‘good ol’ boy’ was a common term  that could simply mean in some rural circles  a cozy sort of male bonding, while to others it implied a negative force. The history and society of Camden, Alabama  has been memorialized in local histories and in a photographic essay book, Down Home: Camden, Alabama (1972, Prairie House Books) by the photographer Bob Adelman.< https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/22/arts/design/bob-adelman-photographer-who-captured-the-emotion-of-the-civil-rights-movement-dies-at-85.html >. The book is sitting  on my desk. In his foreword Aderman writes that “ Down Home is a social portrait of rural Wilcox County and its county seat, Camden, 40 miles south of Selma and 70 miles southwest of Montgomery in the heart of black-belt Alabama…As I photographed the people in the book, I tried to render them as precisely and vividly as possible. Now they seem like characters caught in a dream, part  fantasy of revered traditions, ante-bellum homes and plantations and part  nightmare of racism and poverty. The dream begins to dissolve."

[caption id="attachment_14892" align="alignleft" width="300"] Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Esther Burns Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Esther Burns in 2014 discussing the suspicious death of Esther Brooks, civil rights worker from Camden and Coy, Alabama, driven off the local bridge in her car in the 1980s. Nancy worked with the late Esther Brooks and lived in her home in 1967 with her large extended family. One night in 1967,
Esther was grazed by a bullet shot from a passing car warning her and her father, Jesse Brooks, to get out of Camden.[/caption]

I have been asked to provide evidence, facts, and sources to back up my argument about the unfitness of Jeff Sessions to serve as U.S. attorney general. Below are several easily accessible articles from the Atlantic Monthly to the New York Times that question Sessions' role in the long-after-the-fact prosecution of the KKK criminals who lynched Michael Donald in Montgomery in 1981. Democrat critics vetted these same concerns during the confirmation hearings

However, my evidence concerning the possible malfeasance of Jeff Sessions is original and based on archival research (public records, death certificates) and interviews in Selma and Wilcox County in past and in recent years concerning alleged "lynchings’ – a term used today to refer to summary executions whether by hanging or other methods – of "black martyrs" — another term used by current civil rights workers in Selma and its rural surrounds  today. The mysterious death of Ester Brooks of Camden, Alabama, whose car was run off the local bridge and into the Alabama River in the late 1980s, is a case in point. I lived in the Brooks household and worked with Ester and her father, Jesse Brooks, who were prominent black leaders in the 1960’s.

[caption id="attachment_14893" align="alignright" width="187"] Esther Brooks Ester Brooks[/caption]

My former colleagues in SNCC, local residents in Selma,  Lowndes and Wilcox counties (with whom I remain in contact) have nothing good to say about Jeff Sessions. Johnny Jackson, founder of the Lowndes County Black Panthers as well as SNCC, had planned to offer damning testimony about Sessions last week, but a medical crisis in the family prevented him from doing so.

One of our current project is to bring to the fore many cases of lynchings that have taken place in southwest Alabama that took place in the late 1970s up through, some attest, to this day. My point is that these "modern day" lynchings were never investigated or prosecuted during the many years that Sessions served as assistant attorney general in the late 1970s or during the 12 years he served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama (1981-1995). I am using  these cases to back up my deep reservations about the fitness of Jeff Sessions to serve as U.S. attorney general. The brutal summary executions of two black men in Selma and Hale counties in 1978,  which my colleague  Kathy Veit and I have been investigating, can be found listed  in the civil right archives of lynchings in Selma and in the Selma public library. (attached below). In 2014, Kathy Veit and I went over transcripts of Veit’s interviews with family members, neighbors and friends of the two men, who both disappeared on the same day, May 4, 1979. Complaints were made but they never turned into legal cases  or prosecutions.

Sammie Lee Johnson’s body was found in a pool of blood and his head decapitated on a country road between Hale and Perry counties on that  spring day in May 1978. His co-worker at the Selma cotton compression factory (long since closed), Willie James Nichols, described by those who knew him as a gentle, religious, hardworking man, went missing. Willie’s body washed up from the banks of the Alabama River a few days after he disappeared. Neither either of these two summary executions were ever investigated let alone prosecuted despite the claims of their relatives. Complaints were filed, but the Office of the Attorney General for the Southern District of Alabama, Jeff Sessions, never took them up.

Veit shared with me her transcribed interviews with the families, neighbors, and the owners of the black funeral parlors that did their best to present the mutilated bodies. We first  learned about these summary executions when Veit began to look for the men who appeared in a compelling group photo she snapped in 1968 at the now defunct the Selma Cotton Compression Company.

Four years ago Veit managed to locate Willie Shanks, one of the men in her photo. She wanted to know what had happened to these men, how life had treated them since the civil rights period. She found Willie Shanks living just a block away from the old Selma Cotton Compress.

[caption id="attachment_14897" align="alignleft" width="480"] Veteran SNCC worker with Willie Shanks, Selma, Alabama, July 2014[/caption]

Shanks looked at the 1968 photo with great interest and was able to identify all of his  co-workers at the cotton compress where they had been employed. He focused on the brutal murders of two of men in the photo, Willie Nichols and Sammie Lee Johnson. If you look at the photo, Shanks is the man on the left in white clothes. Sammie Lee Johnson is the sturdy man in a white tank top. Willie James Nichols  is the little guy on the right, a gentle, religious and hard working man. At the time no one could understand why Nichols (known as the “Bible Man”) was killed and dumped in the Alabama River. Sammie  Lee Johnson (according to Shanks) was killed on the day that he fought with his white "boss" at the compress. Sammie had exchanged rough words and angrily and haughtily walked away from his shift. He disappeared that very night and his mutilated body was found and a death certificate filed on May 4, 1979, stating that the immediate cause of death was a fractured skull and damaged organs. The certificate also states that the autopsy was "incomplete" and that the ultimate cause of death (accident, suicide, homicide) was “undetermined.” Sherrill N. Kirk, Dallas County coroner, signed the death certificate. The funeral director, Elijah Rollins, who prepared Sammie Lee’s mutilated body for viewing and burial, told Veit that Sammie was for certain the victim of a modern day lynching. As for the other victim on that  same night, Willie Nichols, his records have “gone missing.”

I have no doubt that that Senator Sessions is today a genial and cordial man. However, his history as attorney general of Southern Alabama, first as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama (1975-1977) and U.S. state attorney for the Southern District of Alabama (1981-1995) is controversial and has been criticized during his confirmation hearings and in many  many articles:

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/sessions-kkk-case/512600/ ; http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/39085-smooth-talking-jeff-sessions-can-t-hide-disturbing-record ; https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2017/01/31/sessions-embrace-racist-law-one-more-reason-reject-his-confirmation-attorney-general ; http://www.nytimes.com/1987/11/01/magazine/the-woman-who-beat-the-klan.html?pagewanted=all

In the end I will leave you with a copy of Sammie Lee Johnson’s death certificate and a question posed to Jeff Sessions: Why was the brutal execution of this man never investigated by the Southern Attorney General’s Office in the 1980s, despite the request for justice by his family members?

Sammie Lee Johnson's death certificate