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A Brief History into Jeff Session’s Past U.S. Attorney Experience in Alabama

An Open Letter to Representative Jerrold Nadler

The Hon. Jerrold Nadler
2109 Rayburn HOB
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Jerry:

Even though confirmation of Jeff Sessions to be the Attorney General is not a House function, as a member of the House Judiciary Committee, I know you are concerned with who heads the DoJ.  Therefore I want to give you a little background on one of the reasons Sessions was not confirmed to be a federal district judge in 1986.  At that time he was the US Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama.

After the 1984 elections, the Reagan Administration’s Justice Department investigated black political activists in five counties in the Alabama blackbelt.  These were counties where the civil rights movement was active in the 1960s, leaving a legacy of politically-empowered black people.  They were Greene, Perry, Sumter, Wilcox and Lowndes Counties, all with black majorities.

As you know from our previous conversations, in 1965-66 I worked for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), primarily doing voter registration in Alabama.  I’ve tried to stay up on Alabama politics ever since.  These five blackbelt counties elected some of the first black officials in the South in the 20th Century.

After flooding these counties with FBI agents looking for dirt, in 1985 the DoJ indicted eight people in two counties, charging them with various types of voter fraud, mostly having to do with marking absentee ballots.  One of these was Albert Turner, head of the Perry County Civic League. He was SCLC’s Alabama state director in the 1960s. I knew him as a fine man and a dedicated organizer.

Since I’m writing a book about working for SCLC, long ago I made an FOIA request for Albert Turner’s FBI file, which you can do for dead people.  All I got were three CDs containing affidavits collected by the FBI in preparation for the 1985 indictment and trial.  I read them, and didn’t see any activity that wasn’t considered “normal politics” when done by whites throughout the state.  I worked in Alabama during the primary election of 1966, so I know what was normally done by white election officials and those working for white candidates, usually the incumbents.

The Justice Department spent a lot of taxpayer money trying to convict eight blacks for doing “normal” politics when done by whites. U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions was the one who tried Albert Turner, his wife, and one other worker in federal court.  Fortunately a lot had changed in 20 years.  For one thing, juries were no longer composed strictly of white men.  The judge threw out most of the charges and a jury of seven blacks and five whites acquitted the three on all charges.  They too saw “normal politics” in what the three were charged with.

The other five defendants lived in Greene County, which is in Alabama’s Northern federal judicial District.  In separate trials, only one was convicted, and only on a few counts.  He was also an SCLC leader, as well as a member of a city council. To convict him the prosecutor struck all blacks from the jury pool.  After hearing the evidence, the all-white jury split, indicating doubt about guilt.  The judge would not let them go home until they agreed on something. They finally voted “guilty” on a couple counts.  The conviction was later overturned by an appeals court.

Now that the attorney who prosecuted Albert Turner is about to head the DoJ, I hope you will keep a keen eye on any prosecutions of blacks, especially in the South, for voter fraud. These prosecutions cost defendants a lot of time, money and anxiety even when they are not guilty. The publicity discourages black political participation even in counties where they are a majority.  Since Alabama blacks vote Democratic, that Republican Administration was looking to minimize the black vote.  I doubt this one will be different.

Also pay particular attention to whom Sessions chooses to head the Civil Rights Division of the DoJ.  Since that position has to be confirmed by the Senate, please ask our Senators to scrutinize closely the person nominated to be the Assistant AG for the CRD.  The AAG in 1984 – 1986 was not a supporter of civil rights.

It will take vigilance to keep the Republican DoJ from returning us to the day when blacks in the South were denied the vote by government bodies which manipulated the law to stay in power.

Your constituent and friend,

Jo Freeman

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Jo Freeman

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