[Marxism] Jeff Sessions’ Other Civil Rights Problem

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 21 14:09:08 MST 2016


NY Times Op-Ed, Nov. 21 2016
Jeff Sessions’ Other Civil Rights Problem
By THOMAS J. SUGRUE

In 1986, the Republican-dominated Senate Judiciary Committee torpedoed 
Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Jeff Sessions to the federal bench. As 
sworn testimony there revealed, Mr. Sessions, then the United States 
attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, had referred to the 
N.A.A.C.P. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (founded by 
the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) as “un-American” and “Communist 
inspired.” He had joked that he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “O.K.” 
until he discovered some of its members smoked pot, and had accused a 
white attorney who supported voting rights of being a race traitor.

The details revealed in this hearing, troublesome enough to sink his 
nomination, are surfacing again, now that President-elect Donald J. 
Trump has selected him to be his attorney general. But it’s worth 
looking beyond those notorious hearings to Mr. Sessions’s more recent 
actions as well.

Eight years after his failed nomination, Mr. Sessions was elected 
Alabama’s attorney general. While he held the position for only two 
years — using it as a steppingstone for his campaign for the Senate — he 
left an indelible mark. He used the power of his office to fight to 
preserve Alabama’s long history of separate and unequal education.

Mr. Sessions became attorney general four decades after the Supreme 
Court struck down segregated schools in its landmark Brown v. Board of 
Education decision. In the intervening years, racial segregation 
diminished somewhat, but separate and unequal continued in another form. 
In 1956, as a way to sidestep Brown, Alabama voters amended the state 
Constitution to deprive students of a right to public education. Public 
support for school funding collapsed in its aftermath.

As a result, by the early 1990s, huge disparities in funding separated 
Alabama’s haves and have-nots. Alabama’s wealthiest school district (and 
also one of its whitest), Mountain Brook, in suburban Birmingham, spent 
nearly twice as much per student as the state’s poorest, Roanoke, in a 
declining manufacturing town about two hours southeast. Poor schools 
often lacked even rudimentary facilities, including science labs. They 
struggled to pay teachers, even to repair dilapidated school buses. Half 
of Alabama’s school buildings lacked air conditioning. Underfunded 
schools had a particularly hard time meeting the needs of disabled 
students, whom they were required to support under federal law.

Nearly 30 of Alabama’s poorest school districts, with support from 
disability rights groups, civil rights organizations and the American 
Civil Liberties Union, filed suit against the state. The most vocal 
critics of school reform, including the far-right activist Phyllis 
Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, warned that it would bring “socialism” to Alabama.

After nearly three years of litigation, Judge Eugene W. Reese of the 
Alabama Circuit Court found the inequitable funding unconstitutional and 
ordered the state to come up with a system to remedy the inequity.

Attorney General Sessions led the battle against the decision. He argued 
that Judge Reese had overreached. It was a familiar war cry on the 
segregationist right: An activist court was usurping the power of the 
state’s duly elected officials to solve the problem on their own. For 
the next two years, Mr. Sessions sought to discredit Judge Reese and 
overturn his ruling. In one of the twists of austerity budgeting in the 
mid-1990s, Mr. Sessions had laid off 70 lawyers in the attorney 
general’s office, and had to find outside counsel to handle the case. 
Lawyers working on contract for the office were to be paid no more than 
$85 per hour, but for the challenge to the equity case, the fee cap was 
lifted.

Mr. Sessions was lauded by fellow Republicans for his efforts. They saw 
funding inequities as part of the natural order of things, not as a 
problem to be remedied. And any remedy would entail either the 
redistribution of funds from wealthier to poorer districts or an 
increase in taxes. Both positions ran against the small-government, 
privatization dogma that Mr. Sessions promoted.

Advocates of school equity cried foul. “They’re asking for the last 50 
years to disappear, as far as improving public education,” complained C. 
C. the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and the lawyer 
for the poor districts, about Mr. Sessions and his allies. 
Special-education and disability organizations were especially outraged: 
the poorest districts could not provide even basic services to students 
in need. If Mr. Sessions won, he would “consign an ever-growing number 
of Alabama schoolchildren to an unconstitutionally inadequate and 
inequitable education,” Justice Torbert added. When Mr. Sessions 
insisted that as attorney general, he was representing the Alabama State 
School Board, the board members protested that he did not represent 
their position. No matter. He fought on.

Finally, in 1997, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld Judge Reese’s finding 
that the state’s educational inequity was unconstitutional. But, as Mr. 
Sessions (by then a senator) had hoped, the court left the remedy to the 
state’s increasingly conservative Legislature, which made only modest 
changes in the state’s school funding structure.

Alabama’s public schools, still underfunded, still separate and unequal, 
ranked near the bottom nationally, stand as one of Jeff Sessions’ most 
enduring legacies. It’s a troubling mark on the record of the man who is 
to be nominated to oversee the Department of Justice, the federal agency 
responsible for upholding America’s civil rights laws.

Thomas J. Sugrue, a professor of history and social and cultural 
analysis at New York University, is the author of “Sweet Land of 
Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North.”



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