Earlier this month, leaders from six civil rights groups met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department to discuss a range of issues that are critical to the Black community.
The meeting was attended by Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under the Law; Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Marc Morial, the president and CEO of the National Urban League; Melanie Campbell, the president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation; Reverend Al Sharpton, the president of the National Action Network; and Wade Henderson, the president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund.
The leaders expressed their concerns about the future of the civil rights gains made under the Obama Administration. They also expressed concerns about the recent rash of hate crimes, the consent decree involving Baltimore’s police department and the impact that any potential, “mythical” voting fraud investigation could have on voters’ rights.
During an interview with Fox News earlier this year, President Donald Trump announced that Vice President Mike Pence would lead a commission to investigate allegations of voter fraud.
ThinkProgress.org reported that President Trump claimed that he would have won the popular vote if it were not for three to five million illegal votes. President Trump has never offered any evidence to support this claim.
“I asked [Attorney General Sessions] to counsel the president against the creation of such a task force and a commission, because that commission will be seen to intimidate our communities,” said Ifill. “In the absence of any evidence of voter fraud, he should be counseling the president away from such a course. We don’t need an investigation into something that doesn’t exist.”
Ifill continued: “We should not be crediting the fantasies of this president at the cost of African Americans and Latinos feeling secure that they’re not being intimidated from voting and participating in the process.”
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, a non-partisan public policy and law institute, “claims of voter fraud are frequently used to justify policies that do not solve the alleged wrongs, but that could well disenfranchise legitimate voters. Overly restrictive identification requirements for voters at the polls—which address a sort of voter fraud more rare than death by lightning —is only the most prominent example.”
Ifill also noted that there were a number of issues that Attorney General Sessions “is not fully informed about,” including current police reform efforts involving consent decrees and some ongoing voting rights discrimination cases.
“You have your hair trigger reaction, you have your partisan reaction, you have your, ‘I’ve been against consent decrees since forever’ reaction, and we were saying, ‘That’s not good enough. You’re the attorney general and you have to get your hands around these issues,” said Ifill. “You gotta listen. You gotta study. You gotta look at facts and you can’t just look at the partisan talking points for the [issues] that we are talking about.”
During the meeting that lasted less than one hour, Henderson said that the attorney general did acknowledge his awareness of the importance of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
At a press conference outside of the Department of Justice after the meeting, the civil rights leaders said that they received no clear commitments to address the issues that they raised during their meeting with the attorney general.
“This was the first meeting, not the last meeting,” said Clarke. “There are a range of issues that are important to all of our organizations and we will continue to bring pressure to bear on this Justice Department to make sure that they are doing their job to enforce civil rights laws.”
Clarke noted that the group did not discuss the memo penned by Attorney General Sessions that overturned an Obama Administration directive that called for reducing the use of private prisons to house federal inmates.
Clarke called the decision “incredibly problematic” and said that it reversed years of work and effort on the bipartisan justice reform.
“It was an important decision that came at the end of Attorney General Lynch’s tenure that Mr. Sessions has reversed and that we are all very, very concerned about,” said Clarke.
Sharpton said that the civil rights leaders did not want “a photo-op” meeting with Sessions and indicated that they had no plans to back off of their positions.
“We give him credit for having that meeting, but we were not looking for commitments, we were looking for him to hear from us that no protests that we were involved in and that we wanted to be clear that we expected him to uphold the law,” said Sharpton.
Sharpton continued: “We were not hostile, but we showed holy indignation and we’ll continue to be indignant about any threats to our civil rights.”
Freddie Allen contributed to this report.