The head of one of the largest African-American civil rights organization told Congress on Wednesday that Sen. Jeff Sessions is "unfit to serve" as attorney general, as a 1986 letter from the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. surfaced strongly expressing opposition to the Alabama senator.
Cornell Brooks, the head of the NAACP, said the organization "firmly believes" that Sessions is unfit to serve as attorney general in the incoming Trump administration. Brooks joined supporters and opponents of Sessions on the second day of Senate confirmation hearings, including one of Sessions' fellow senators — a sharp break with tradition.
The Alabama Republican was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1986 for a federal judgeship amid accusations that he had called a black attorney "boy" — which he denied — and the NAACP and ACLU "un-American."
"We take no pleasure in stating that, in the view of the NAACP, Senator Sessions' record conclusively demonstrates that he lacks the judgment and temperament to serve effectively as attorney general of the United States," Brooks said in his testimony, saying the senator "evinces a clear disregard, disrespect and even disdain for the civil and human rights of racial and ethnic minorities, women, the disabled and others who suffer from discrimination in this country."
Sessions on Tuesday called those accusations "damnably false" and said he is "totally committed to maintaining the freedom and equality that this country has to provide to every citizen."
On Tuesday, the NAACP released a letter from Coretta Scott King, wife of the civil rights leader, in which she said that Sessions' actions as a federal prosecutor were "reprehensible" and that he used his office "in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters."
"Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as a federal judge," Mrs. King wrote. Mrs. King died in 2006.
Later in the day, one of Sessions' Senate colleagues, Democrat Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, testified against his nomination.
The New Jersey senator said an attorney general "must bring hope and healing to the country and this demands a more courageous effort that Sen. Sessions demonstrates."
Booker, who is black, called his opposition "a call to conscience" and said he didn't make the decision to speak at the hearing lightly.
Senate officials said they could find no other case in the country's history when a sitting senator testified against a colleague picked for a Cabinet post.
Civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, also testified against Sessions, saying, "We need someone who's going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people that need help," regardless of race, sexuality, religion.
Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey came to Sessions' defense at the hearing. He wrote in his testimony that "of all the insidious practices that have crept into our politics in recent times, I know of none more insidious than casual and unjustified accusations of racism, smears that once leveled are difficult to wipe clean."
Larry Thompson, a former deputy attorney general who is black and has known Sessions for three decades, testified that he has "no doubt that he will enforce the law in favor of all Americans' civil rights, regardless of their positions or perspectives."
Brooks was followed by Fraternal Order of Police President Chuck Canterbury, who said Sessions has consistently supported laws that protect and enhance the work of law enforcement agents.
"Officers in the field want to know who has my back, who will protect me?" Canterbury said.
Sessions has solid support from the Senate's Republican majority and from some Democrats in conservative-leaning states, and is expected to easily win confirmation. But Democrats are using the hearings to try to show that Sessions — and President-elect Donald Trump's administration — won't be committed to civil rights, a chief priority of the Justice Department during the Obama administration.