A letter sent by Coretta Scott King saying Jeff Sessions would be a bad choice for a lifetime federal judgeship is receiving new attention after Sen. Elizabeth Warren was rebuked Tuesday evening for quoting King’s letter on the Senate floor.
Staffers from the Alabama senator’s original hearing say a clerical error must have kept it from being included in the original record.
In the 1986 letter and statement, the widow of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. said Sessions’ actions as a federal prosecutor in Alabama were “reprehensible” and said he used his office “in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.”
But the letter and statement never appeared in Sessions’ hearing record in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sessions was eventually rejected as a federal judge, but went on to become Alabama’s U.S. senator. President Donald Trump now wants him for attorney general
In her letter, King said a previous appointment kept her from being in Washington personally to speak against Sessions.
“I request that my statement, as well as this letter be made a part of the hearing record,” she asked then Senate Judiciary Chairman Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who was an avowed segregationist in his earlier life. She copied in Biden, then Democratic senator from Delaware before becoming vice president under President Barack Obama.
A scan of Sessions’ hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee record shows no mention of King’s statement, her letter or any indication she opposed Sessions’ nomination as a federal judge.
Jim Manley, a Democratic consultant and former top Senate aide, called it “unusual” that the letter would not be included. “It think it probably highlights what a flashpoint racial politics played in Sen. Sessions’ nomination years ago,” Manley said.
But Thaddeus Strom, former Thurmond chief of staff and chief counsel and staff director of the Senate Judiciary Committee, attributed the absence to a “clerical error.”
“Certainly it wasn’t by design,” Strom said. “It’s a perfunctory matter to include letters and statements in support and opposition to nominees and these are often submitted by senators on the committee during the hearing. Counsel for Republicans and Democrats would have reviewed the record before it was final and in this instance it appears the ball was dropped.”
There was likely nothing nefarious about the letter not being included in the record, added Armstrong Williams, a former Thurmond staffer. There was no hostility between Thurmond and King during that period, said Williams, who has a photo of himself, King and Thurmond together.
While he did not remember what happened with the Sessions letter, Williams said he remembered Mrs. King successfully lobbying Thurmond to keep federal funding for the Martin Luther King Jr., National Holiday, and them sitting together at then-President George H.W. Bush’s inauguration.
“Mrs. King came to the conclusion that people could change, and it started with Senator Thurmond,” Williams said.
King, in her statement, pointed to Sessions’ prosecution of three black Alabama voting rights activists as why he should not be a federal judge. “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 1960s,” King wrote.
Blacks had learned to use the absentee voting rules and were teaching others, which was upsetting those who feared African-American political power, she said.
“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.”
Evelyn Turner has still has not forgiven Sessions. She said she saw Sessions in Washington, D.C. last year before his nomination; He attempted to speak to her but did not apologize for his prosecution.
“After all these years, my stomach still aches when I think of the pain he caused so many people,” she said in a January letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee.