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.”