When Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Donald J. Trump's choice for attorney general, answers questions from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, he can expect to revisit a long-ago case that has followed him.
In 1985, when Sessions was the United States attorney in West Alabama, he prosecuted three African-American civil rights activists, accusing them of voter fraud. The case, more than any other, helped derail Sessions the last time he sought Senate confirmation, when he hoped to become a federal judge in 1986. Yet then and now, Sessions has defended the prosecution as necessary and just.
If he had it to do over, Sessions would bring the case again, a Trump transition official told me in December.
To some black leaders who lived through the prosecution, however, it remains a reason, all these years later, for grave concern about a Sessions-led Justice Department.
"If he is attorney general, I would not expect the rights of all people, including the least among us, to be protected," said Hank Sanders, a longtime Alabama state senator. "To understand why, you have to start with that case."
Albert Turner, Sessions's chief target, began fighting for the right to vote in West Alabama in the early 1960s, trying to organize other African-Americans after he wasn't allowed to register because he couldn't pass a test used to thwart black applicants, even though he had a college education. Beginning in 1965, he served as state director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and an adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., helping to organize a major voting rights demonstration that year.
Speaking out and organizing was dangerous at the time. "There's no explanation in the world as to how I'm still living," Turner reflected a decade and a half later, in an article in the journal Southern Changes.
Throughout the period, Turner did the day-to-day work of persuading African-Americans in his region — known as the Black Belt for its rich, dark soil — that the Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965, made it safe, finally, to register to vote.
The effort was slow going.
Growing up under the shadow of Jim Crow, African-Americans remained wary of exercising political power, fearing repercussions from white landowners and employers.
In the '60s, Turner and his wife, Evelyn, along with other activists, formed the Perry County Civic League, which provided food and medicine to rural residents, who were among the state's poorest, as well as helping them register to vote.
Gradually, in Perry and other counties where the black population was 60 percent or higher, black candidates started to run for office, some with the league's support.
But by the early 1980s, a local group, Concerned Citizens of Perry County, and a branch of the White Citizens Council, historically a white supremacist network, were working against Turner's group to elect what they called a "coalition" of white and black candidates.
A handbill from nearby Greene County urged voters to "support good, responsible blacks" to defeat "the radical forces of the black front."
In Perry County, the polls were only open for four hours in the afternoon, even though nearly one-third of adults worked outside the county and another 15 percent were over the age of 65.
White voters used absentee balloting to keep their level of participation high among local residents and also to include some who had moved away.
"Letters would go out from white elected officials to a list of people they knew who owned land locally but lived elsewhere: 'Make sure you vote absentee,'" says Allen Tullos, a historian at Emory University who has written about the Turner case. "The white power structure felt under siege, so there was a sense of 'We've got to call in our friends and families to roll this back.'"Concerned about white absentee voting from afar, black leaders sent Turner to Washington, to complain to lawyers at the Justice Department, whose job was to enforce the Voting Rights Act. "They said, 'We can't do anything,'" Sanders remembers. "'It's a gray area in the law. Y'all need to learn to use the absentee-ballot process yourselves.'"Turner did so, attending workshops in the Alabama attorney general's office in hopes of increasing turnout among local rural black voters.
"Once I learned myself, then it was my job to go out through the area and teach the rest of the counties how the law worked," he later testified before Congress.
The activists started visiting people at home, helping them fill out their ballots and mailing them.
In 1982, his work paid off. The number of black absentee voters rose, and in Perry, Greene and three other counties in the Black Belt, black candidates, including those supported by Turner's group, won majorities on the school board and county commissions.
After the election, the local district attorney convened a grand jury to investigate absentee balloting, focusing only on black voters aided by Turner's group. The grand jury did not indict anyone. In September 1984, before primary elections, the district attorney and a black candidate from the black-and-white coalition asked for a federal investigation by the United States attorney for Southern Alabama — Jeff Sessions.
Federal prosecutors have enormous discretion over which cases to bring. It's not clear why a fight among county politicians would have interested them, absent the larger shift in the Black Belt's racial dynamics.
The night before the primary, Sessions stationed an F.B.I. agent outside the Perry County post office. The agent saw Albert and Evelyn Turner and a third activist, Spencer Hogue, mailing hundreds of absentee ballots.
The F.B.I. opened the ballots and found 75 with candidate votes they suspected had been erased or re-marked.The government later lowered the number of disputed ballots to 27, but they still sparked a giant investigation. Ten F.B.I. agents fanned out, interviewing more than 1,000 residents about whether they could read or write, whether anyone helped them vote and whether they had altered their own ballots.
The Black Belt includes 10 or so counties; the F.B.I. concentrated on the five in which black voters were making strides toward political ascendance. And in each of the five counties, the government targeted longtime black activists and political leaders — figures like Turner.
In October, as part of the investigation and before the general election, Sessions's office convened a federal grand jury more than 160 miles south, in Mobile, where the jury pool included more white people.
Surrounded by F.B.I. agents and police with guns, about 20 black voters from Perry County, many older and some frail, were taken by bus to Mobile, where they were fingerprinted, photographed and questioned by the grand jury about their votes.
"This was the most degrading thing," the Rev. O.C. Dobynes, who accompanied the voters on the bus, told Congress a year later. "To me, it was just simply saying, We are going to scare you into saying what we want you to say."
Asked by a grand juror whether she'd voted absentee for the first time in the September primary, a Perry County resident named Fannie Mae Williams answered: "Uh-huh. First and last."
Two other women told the grand jury they were done with voting, according to the book "Lift Every Voice," by Lani Guinier, a professor at Harvard Law School.
Albert and Evelyn Turner and Spencer Hogue were indicted in January 1985 on 29 counts, for mail fraud, conspiracy to commit voting fraud and voting more than once.
Sessions and his assistants claimed the defendants filled out the disputed absentee ballots themselves. Each faced decades in prison.
"It was hell," remembers Evelyn Turner, now 80. (Her husband died in 2000.) "We had always helped people with voting, for ages, and they trusted us. Why would you mess with someone's ballot, if you knew it wasn't what they wanted? We weren't fools."
Hank Sanders organized a team that included defense lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Southern Poverty Law Center, including Guinier.
The Perry case attracted national attention in part because aspects of the prosecution appeared unprecedented.
Sessions was the first federal prosecutor to pursue allegations of absentee-voter fraud in a strictly local election, James Liebman, one of the NAACP lawyers, testified to the Senate in 1986, and the first to bring the might of the federal government to bear over a relatively small number of ballots.
Liebman also described evidence of absentee-voting irregularities, including altered ballots, on behalf of candidates, both black and white, who were primarily supported by white voters.
But Sessions told the Senate that "no evidence was presented to us at that time of fraud by whites, at least anything credible."
Justice Department policy in the 1980s supported bringing election cases "only when federal involvement is either necessary to vindicate paramount federal interests, or as a prosecutor of last resort to redress longstanding patterns of egregious electoral abuse." Yet the Public Integrity Section of Ronald Reagan's Justice Department approved Sessions's case, saying it was not motivated by racial bias.
Soon after the F.B.I. staked out the Perry County post office, the United States attorney general issued a statement that seemed related to Sessions's prosecution: "Federal law prohibits political participants from intentionally seeking out the elderly, the socially disadvantaged or the illiterate for the purpose of subjugating their electoral will."
When the Turners and Hogue went to trial, in June 1985, their supporters came in such numbers that entry to the courtroom in Selma required a ticket.
Witness after witness among the 17 voters who testified said that while they'd received assistance from the Turners and Hogue to fill out their ballots, they'd done so willingly. The exceptions were members of a single family of six, who said their ballots were altered without their permission.
During the trial, the prosecution adopted an exceptionally broad theory, arguing that it was a crime for a voter to sign a ballot that someone else filled out for him. "Even if the voter authorizes someone to complete the ballot?" the judge asked. "That is correct," one of Sessions's assistants said. The judge ruled that this theory was contrary to election law and the Constitution, and at the close of trial, threw out many of the counts against the Turners and Hogue.
They were acquitted of the rest by the jury, which had been picked in Mobile and had seven black members and five white ones. A cheering crowd poured onto the steps of the courthouse.
During the last month, Sessions has sought to portray other aspects of his tenure as United States attorney as friendly to civil rights, though the lawyers who did the work in the cases he cited have accused him of exaggerating his role.
The Perry County case is a precursor to current Republican claims that voter fraud at the polls is a widespread problem, which Sessions has promoted, even though there is little evidence to support it.
Voter-impersonation fraud is a "myth," a letter signed by more than 1,200 law professors opposing Sessions's nomination states.
Former Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, who helped defend Spencer Hogue, calls Sessions's efforts in Perry County a "cautionary tale." The case, Patrick wrote, "demonstrates what can happen when prosecutorial discretion is unchecked, when regard for facts is secondary to political objectives."
This article by Emily Bazelon is reprinted from The New York Times, January 9, 2017.
January 9, 2017.
Addendum. What you can do to stop Sessions' appointment.
Get on the phone. Get your Senators and Representatives numbers by texting your zip code to (520) 200-2223.
We need 3 Repug Senators to block him or 2 if he doesn't vote for himself.
Call your GOP Senators and Reps and tell them to block Sessions. Tell them you will unelect them as well as all local GOP officials if they don't reject Sessions. Remind them there are elections each year locally and then comes 2018.
If your Senator is a Republican, find their passion and commitments and rouse them.
If your own Senator is not a Republican, use "Find My Friends in [name of State]" in search on FB for friends who live in Iowa or any state where a Repubican Senator might defect and vote against Sessions.
Ask your friends to post what you request to others who live in that state. Give your friend and his/her friends the phone number to call to either warn or encourage the targeted Senator on the vote against Sessions.
Ask any Elected Official to ask Sessions to recuse himself from his own confirmation. Hillary and Kerry did this.
Grassley is refusing to allow the Democrats to have more than 4 speakers on Sessions. Demand fair hearings on Sessions and others. Threaten him that we will turn Iowa blue and stop all GOP candidates locally. Phone 515-288-1145.
Susan Collins of Maine wrote an op-ed in August saying she would not vote for Trump. She is a strong supporter against domestic violence and sexual assault and for gender equality. Remind her how anti-women he is. Susan Collins' phone number : (207) 622-8414
Lisa Murkowski of Alaska (202)-224-6665)has been pro-woman (supported abortion rights) and should be a target to defect and vote against Sessions who clearly won't defend abortion clinics..
Jeff Flake: One of the most outspoken Trump foes in the Senate, Could be enlisted in this effort by Collins. 202-224-4521
Joni Ernst, Iowa. A Trump supporter but during her college years Ernst volunteered at a safe house for battered and abused women and children in Ames, Iowa. "Answering a beeper call at mostly inconvenient and late hours, Joni would head to a hospital, police station or safehouse to give comfort to a woman or child in need of support," She can be pressured on women's issues. Remind her. Phone: (515) 284-4574
Call your Democratic Representatives and tell them to press their Republican Senatorial colleagues. Tell them we expect them to be the Anti-T Party and fight Trump and Sessions, as the Tea Party and the GOP fought President Obama. Tell them you oppose Sessions who is qualified to be the People's lawyer, since he doesn't support the rights of all Americans.
We can stop Sessions just as we stopped the gutting of the House Ethics Office last Tuesday. Make those calls. We can win.