Sen. Jeff Sessions speaks to the media after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted on the Kagan confirmation during a markup hearing in July 2010.
Racism allegations haunt Sessions
03:11 - Source: CNN

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Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump

He's a conservative from Alabama

CNN  — 

Jeff Sessions, the first US senator to endorse Donald Trump, has been one of the President-elect’s top supporters so it’s no surprise that he is being considered as a potential Cabinet member.

But with the new attention on Sessions – who has emerged as the top candidate to be the next attorney general, according to a transition official, setting up a potential Senate confirmation hearing – old allegations of racism against the Alabama Republican are sure to haunt him.

It was 30 years ago that Sessions was denied a federal judgeship. At the time, he was a 39-year-old US attorney in Alabama.

The Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony during hearings in March and May 1986, that Sessions had made racist remarks and called the NAACP and ACLU “un-American.”

Thomas Figures, a black assistant US attorney who worked for Sessions, testified that Sessions called him “boy” on multiple occasions and joked about the Ku Klux Klan, saying that he thought Klan members were “OK, until he learned that they smoked marijuana.”

On why he never spoke up against Sessions’ alleged use of the term, Figures testified: “I felt that if I had said anything or reacted in a manner in which I thought appropriate, I thought I would be fired.”

Sessions angrily denied the allegations at the time. His office did not respond to a recent request for comment.

“I am not a racist, I am not insensitive to blacks. I have supported civil rights activity in my state. I have done my job with integrity, equality, and fairness for all,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

He said he detested the Klan, and called the assertion that he made those statements “ludicrous.”

Figures also testified that Sessions was critical of the NAACP and other groups.

“On the day in question, Mr. Sessions came into my office just as I was reading a newspaper account of some the recent action of the NAACP. I casually mentioned that development to Mr. Sessions. Mr. Sessions in response stated that he believed the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Operation PUSH and the National Conference of Churches were all un-American organizations teaching anti-American values. This statement clearly was not intended as a joke,” Figures said.

Transcripts of the hearing also show that J. Gerald Hebert, who was a Justice Department lawyer, also testified that Sessions told him the NAACP and ACLU were “un-American” and “Communist-inspired.”

Hebert, who now directs a voting program at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, told CNN Thursday he stands by the testimony he gave 30 years ago.

“Things that I had heard firsthand from him were things that demonstrated gross racial insensitivity to black citizens of Alabama and the United States,” Hebert said.

At the time, Hebert testified that Sessions said a white attorney who represented black clients might be a disgrace and that the NAACP and ACLU did more harm than good by trying to force civil rights “down the throats of people.”

Hebert told CNN he fears Sessions might disregard the civil rights division of the Justice Department were he to become Trump’s attorney general.

“He has never backed off from the comments he made at that time. He has never apologized for them,” Hebert said Thursday.

In a heated exchange with then-Sen. Joe Biden at the 1986 hearing, Sessions denied calling the NAACP and National Council of Churches “un-American.”

“They may have taken positions that I consider to be averse to the security interests of the United States,” Sessions testified.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 10-8 against Sessions’ nomination, making him the second nominee in 50 years to be rejected for a federal judgeship.

Sessions became attorney general of Alabama in 1994, and was elected to the Senate in 1996. Ironically, Sessions went on to be the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee – the very panel that had rejected him years earlier.

Reflecting on the rejection in 2009, he described the allegations made against him as “heartbreaking.”

“That was not fair, that was not accurate. Those were false charges using distortions of anything that I did. And it really was not. I never had those kinds of views, and I was caricatured in a way that was not me,” he told CNN at the time.

CNN’s Jim Acosta contributed to this report.