While many federal prosecutors like to be remembered for their successes, sometimes the failures loom larger. One of the most memorable actions Senator Jeff Sessions took during his tenure as U.S. Attorney in the State of Alabama involved baseless charges levied upon three prominent African-American activists for promoting voter engagement in poor parts of the state’s rural Black Belt.
Albert Turner, a long-time adviser for Martin Luther King, Jr., marched along with John Lewis from Selma to Montgomery on March 7, 1965. Once they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers confronted them with dogs, fire hoses, rifles, and billy clubs. Refusing to waver in their important work to register disenfranchised Black voters, Turner and others soon found themselves pinned to hot pavement while the officers struck blow after blow. When the dust settled, ripped clothing and empty canisters of tear gas littered the street — the detritus of “Bloody Sunday.
Given the obstacles he overcame to exercise his inalienable right to vote, it’s easy to understand why others referred to Turner as “Mr. Voter Registration.” The memories of those marches carried him from door to door in rural African American communities, where many eligible voters had yet to make it on to the rolls. Turner served as President of the Perry County Civic League, which registered Black voters and facilitated civic engagement by providing sample ballots, published slates of endorsed candidates and assistance to the elderly and infirm with the absentee ballot process. From 1980 to 1985, the population of registered black voters expanded from 4.3 million to 5.6 million, helping spur the election of several African America leaders in the Black Belt of Alabama (Perry, Sumter, Greene, Wilcox, and Lowndes Counties).
These grassroots efforts did not sit well with Jeff Sessions. Sessions used his vast power as the chief federal prosecutor in the state to selectively open investigations into “voter fraud” with a singular focus on African-American activists and civil rights workers. In subsequent testimony to Congress, Black State Senator Hank Sanders observed a discernible pattern that emerged from Sessions’ efforts — clear targeting of those communities where Blacks were gaining newfound political power. During his tenure as U.S. Attorney, Sessions called for the interrogation of hundreds of witnesses about their experiences voting, understandably frightening some who later vowed never to vote again after the experience. Willie Bright, a 92-year old black voter, refused to tell law enforcement that he’d voted, worried that even this simple admission would somehow render him guilty.
Ultimately, close to two dozen Black voters were packed onto a bus, transported to Mobile and forced to present testimony to a federal grand jury. Maryland State Senator Clarence Mitchell remarked that the KKK and White Citizens’ Councils could shutter their operations because the government, under Sessions, was carrying out their work with taxpayer dollars.
A federal grand jury eventually indicted Turner, his wife Evelyn, and his colleague Spencer Hogue Jr. on multiple counts of mail fraud and conspiracy. Evelyn was also charged with notarizing absentee ballots in the absence of voters, and Turner and Hogue were both accused of submitting multiple ballots.
Robert Turner, the brother of defendant Albert Turner, blasted the indictments as baseless efforts intended to “dissuade Black people from voting.” Ultimately, Federal District Judge Emmett Cox dismissed 50 counts against the defendants due to lack of evidence before the jury acquitted the Marion Three of every single outstanding charge.
The effects of the case rippled across Alabama. The chilling effect that the Sessions-led prosecutions had on Black voters was palpable. Poor and elderly voters were discouraged from voting, fearing that their efforts to participate could invite the heavy hand of the federal government.
At the end of 1985, the Reagan Administration nominated Sessions to a federal judgeship. The targeting of the Marion Three loomed over Sessions during those hearings, with Ted Kennedy asserting, “[Sessions’] role in the voting fraud case in Alabama alone should bar him from sitting on the bench.” Testimony showcased an attorney stuck in the bygone days of a Jim Crow South: Thomas Figures, who worked alongside Sessions as an Assistant Attorney, said Sessions repeatedly addressed him as “boy,” and lawyer Gerry Hebert testified that Sessions described the NAACP as a “Communist-inspired” and “un-American” organization. A Republican-controlled committee bucked the president’s plan and rejected the Sessions nomination — the first such rejection of a federal judgeship nominee in close to 50 years at that time.
Now, Sessions has been nominated to serve as Attorney General of the United States — a role that brings with it the even greater responsibility of enforcing our nation’s most important federal laws, including civil rights laws. To Sessions, the Voting Rights Act is little more than “a piece of intrusive legislation,” a perspective he reaffirmed when, after the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder, he declared: “If you go to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, people aren’t being denied the vote because of the color of their skin.”
Surely we’ve come a long way since the Albert Turner case, voter suppression continues to have a stark impact on African Americans, Latinos and other minority communities, undermining their ability to exercise our most sacred democratic right. Our nation deserves an Attorney General who will fight voter suppression, and will enforce our laws fairly and evenly to ensure equal justice under law for all Americans. The facts surrounding the Marion Three case remain unchanged and continue to cast grave doubt that Sessions is up to this important task.