After Decades of Civil Rights Advances, Trump's DOJ Sets the US Backwards

The current administration has shown little regard for preserving or prioritizing the civil rights work of figures like Martin Luther King Jr.

Jan 12 2018, 9:30pm

There was a time when the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King seemed irrefutable. Or at least it seemed that no one would have the audacity to refute those teachings in the halls of government, where the man has been proclaimed a national icon. But when Jeff Sessions was nominated to be Attorney General, the highest authority on justice in the land, it became clear that even the most sacred voices of our national conscience could be ignored.

When Senator Elizabeth Warren read Coretta Scott King’s words, which offered a damning testimony of Sessions’ record and character, she was silenced on the Senate floor. Famously, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

She read the entire 1986 letter, which helped ensure that then-US Attorney Jeff Sessions would not become a federal judge because, in Mrs. King’s words, “the appointment of Jeff Sessions to the federal bench would irreparably damage the work of my husband.”

“Under Sessions, there is no regard for preserving or prioritizing the work of civil rights.”

The Republican-led committee voted against Sessions because there was a legitimate concern that he could not and would not be impartial.

“The notion that they wanted to silence both Coretta Scott King, who was a Civil Rights icon in her own right, and Elizabeth Warren, was a flag that they didn’t want people to know the relevant information these people had to share,” Kristine Lucius, Executive Vice President of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told VICE Impact. Lucius worked in the Senate for fifteen years, and she said through all the controversial hearings she witnessed she never saw anything like that. “It was a stunning moment.”

Sessions, of course, was confirmed, and the warnings that Mrs. King issued are coming to pass.

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“On civil rights issues,” Christopher Anders, Deputy Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, told VICE Impact, “Sessions is the worst Attorney General in modern history. While he has not been able to follow through on some of his worst instincts, he seems determined to do so whenever he can.”

Former Attorney General Eric Holder referred to the civil rights division as the crown jewel of the Justice Department. Now, there is no confirmed head of the department, and President Trump’s nominee, Eric Dreiband, has sparked opposition from many civil rights groups, who say he has no experience with issues currently at the core of civil rights matters, including voting rights and hate crimes.

“Under Sessions, there is no regard for preserving or prioritizing the work of civil rights,” said Anders. “Instead, the effort seems to be to pull back as much as they can. After decades of advances, this past year has been a record of pulling back from that work and sending us in the opposite direction.”

“The role of the Justice Department isn’t to carry out a political agenda. It’s to do justice and uphold the law.”

For example, one can look to almost any area of government. Guidance issued by now former United States Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in August of 2016 limited reliance on private prisons, which turn inmates into profitable commodities. Sessions rescinded that. In August of 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder issued guidance to rethink the way the Department of Justice charged drug crimes, which disproportionately targeted communities of color. In May of 2017, Sessions rolled that back. And then there are the murky waters of police reform.

“Last summer, Sessions rescinded a DOJ guidance around collaborative reform and policing that was focused on communities and police departments working together,” Jesselyn McCurdy, Deputy Director at the ACLU, told VICE Impact. “Sessions redirected that initiative to allow police departments to have access to that money, de-emphasizing the collaborative part.”

Last week, of course, the DOJ made waves when they rescinded guidance that Holder had issued around prosecution of marijuana, even in states that have legalized it. But there is pushback.

“Cory Gardner, a conservative republican from Colorado, has said he will block justice department nominees until Sessions backs off from the changes he made there,” said Anders. “Senator Gardner says he had a commitment from Sessions that he would not change those practices.”

The frightening limbo that’s been caused by ending the Obama-era DACA protections for young people brought to this country as children was, according to Anders, “the dream and fantasy of Jeff Sessions and his staff. It’s a political and legal mess with real human consequences.”

And, in cases like that of the 17-year-old Mexican immigrant who sought an abortion while in federal custody, Sessions exerted an enormous effort to block her. While the issue of abortion may be politically debated, the role of the Attorney General is clear.

“The role of the Justice Department isn’t to carry out a political agenda,” said Anders. “It’s to do justice and uphold the law.”

He believes the reason Sessions is acting in such a partisan way, and compromising the crucial independence of the justice department, is because he is so beholden to President Trump. If he was not permitted to become a federal judge in the ‘80s by a republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee, it was only because of Trump that he is in this position at all.

“Sessions was an outsider,” said Anders. “His views were very much outside the mainstream of justice department officials… He has come to exist much more at the mercy of Donald Trump than prior Attorney Generals. His job is constantly under threat and he needs to kiss the ring of President Trump. There’s a real lack of independence and not pushing back against the president’s persistent efforts to politicize the justice department.”

Politicizing a branch of government that relies on its independence for its credibility is a major assault on democracy. But without equal access to the ballot box for every American, what is a democracy? Dr. King’s legacy is broad, but at the absolute heart of his work was voting rights.

“I often wonder what Dr. King would think seeing the fight for voting rights still at the front of mind,” said Lucius. “In several cases, Sessions has taken a Justice Department that was pro-voting rights and made it anti-voting rights.”

She points to the recent Ohio voter purge case, in which the government takes the position that if a person fails to vote in one national election, they will be automatically purged from the voting role.

“When I think of all the blood, sweat, and tears that went in to voting rights,” said Lucius, “it is such an affront to the legacy of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy and others.”

Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Poor People’s Campaign sees the attacks, and the resistance, as a continuation of Dr. King’s work. The Poor People’s Campaign sees where all of the populations made vulnerable under AG Sessions can coalesce.

“Jeff Sessions has a lifelong record of racist voter suppression,” said Theoharis. “The 22 states that have enacted voter suppression laws are the same states that have the highest poverty rates, the least protections for LGBTQ populations, the least protections for immigrants, and the least protections for the environment. There’s a connection between racist voter suppression and bringing everybody down.”

Lucius finds attacks on LGBTQ communities particularly striking because the bipartisan victories are so recent, like protections for trans students and same-sex couples. While the disenfranchised in these examples may not look the same as those disenfranchised at the lunch counters in Martin Luther King Jr’s time, the core question is still the same.

“Look at the Masterpiece Cakeshop,” said Lucius. “It’s a question of whether businesses can discriminate in regards to who they serve. I am optimistic that people will remember the lunch counters and access to businesses based on race.”

That optimism is not unfounded. Even though civil rights are more threatened today than they have been in decades, and even though it can feel like we’re being dragged back into a period of harsh and condoned injustice, the power of the people is as alive today as it was during Dr. King’s times.

“People are owning these issues and taking action,” said Anders. “Much of this is digitally, in a way Dr. King could have only dreamed of and hoped for, but a lot of it is done in the real world with people getting out of their chairs. At the ACLU, our membership, our donors, our activists, and our social media have all doubled, tripled, or quadrupled in the last year. We are a different organization today than we were a year ago, and we are focused on politically moving people across the country to own these issues and take action where they live, consistent with Dr. King’s vision and work.”

Join the ACLU’s People Power activists now.