While my husband and I were trying to help black people vote in Alabama, Jeff Sessions was trying to put us in jail.
Perry County in the 1960s was a hostile place to be black. To register to vote, a black resident needed to have a white “well to do” citizen to vouch for them. To enter the county courthouse, blacks had to use the back door. And to fight for our basic rights as Americans, we had to gather in the woods because so many black residents were afraid to be seen meeting in town.
Despite vicious segregation and this climate of fear, civil rights leaders and ordinary black residents organized to seek the right to vote. My husband, Albert Turner, served as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Alabama field director and helped to lead voter registration efforts in Marion and Perry County. The U.S. Department of Justice and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy helped to support our voter registration efforts and secure our basic rights. Federal registrars sent by Kennedy worked out of the Marion post office basement and helped to register hundreds of black voters.
In 1965, during a peaceful voting rights march in Marion, state troopers beat and shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, an Army veteran who had tried unsuccessfully to register to vote five different times. Jackson’s killing sparked the first Selma-to-Montgomery March and Bloody Sunday. His death, and too many others, played a significant role in the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act later that year. We relied on the power of that legislation and the commitment of both Kennedy and then Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach in supporting access to the ballot box for the black people of Perry County.
It would be a great step backwards for our democracy to have Jeff Sessions serving in the job Kennedy and Katzenbach held.
After the passage of the Voting Rights Act, I was proud to see that black voting registration in our region grew by tens of thousands and I was proud of my late husband’s well-earned nickname, “Mr. Voter Registration.” I also was proud to work alongside him to continue to build and grow our community’s political voice. But as black political power grew, so did resistance.
In 1985, U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions indicted me, my husband, and another civil rights worker, Spencer Hogue, on false charges of election fraud for assisting elderly black citizens with absentee voting ballots. Until the day I die, I will believe that our arrests were because of our successful political activism and were designed to intimidate black voters and dampen black voting enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Sessions declined to investigate claims of unlawful white voting.
Despite none of us having any history of criminal activity, Sessions wanted to give us the maximum sentences, adding up to two centuries in prison. My husband was willing to plead guilty for crimes he didn’t commit if it would keep me from going to jail. But I knew we were innocent and refused the offer. Thankfully, the case against us, the “Marion 3,” was weak. The vast majority of charges were dismissed outright for lack of evidence, and a racially-mixed jury only took four hours of deliberation before acquitting us.
Yet the trial took a toll. We had to sell our family’s farm. I lost my job. The episode also took a toll on the voters of Perry County. The tactics of using the levers of power to intimidate and sow fear worked all too well. Black turnout dropped. People were afraid to exercise their constitutional right to vote for fear of retaliation backed by the power of the government. This was what Jeff Sessions did as a U.S. Attorney. I can only imagine what might happen to black voters when he has the power of the entire Department of Justice at his disposal.
The question of whether Jeff Sessions should be our nation’s next attorney general should not rise or fall just with what happened more than 30 years ago. While my impression of Sessions was formed in 1985, the years since then have only confirmed my views. Sessions has demonstrated a pattern of ignorance and insensitivity when it comes to race and a voting record of outright hostility to policies supported by the civil rights community.
During his rise in Alabama state politics, Sessions opposed several efforts to increase the racial diversity of federal judges in Alabama. In 1995, Sessions supported the idea of re-starting chain gangs in Alabama, even promising to defend any legal challenges against the practice. Any state, especially one with Alabama’s painful racial history, should not have their elected officials support measures that would put black men back in actual chains.
Source: USA Today | Evelyn Turner is a longtime civil rights and voting rights advocate in Alabama.