WASHINGTON, D.C.—On the eve of President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20 and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day on January, the Rev. Al Sharpton led a march from the national mall to the late civil rights leader’s memorial to highlight pressing issues facing the black community, and to challenge the nomination of Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions to head the Justice Department.
According to Sharpton, the continuation of police reform, mass incarceration, and the possibility of a national stop-and-frisk policy are the top issues that need to be addressed as Trump takes office.
“I want Trump to see that we are not fair weather activists. We march in the rain, in the ice, in the cold. We are not Trump Tower folk, we are down in the ground activists. And if you got any doubt about it, watch these activists march today,” said Sharpton. “I’m so mad at Sessions, I put on my hat and covered up my hair, and I ain’t covered my hair in a long time.”
Sharpton and many of the event’s speakers expressed disdain and concern over Trump’s nomination of Sessions for U.S. Attorney General, making it the key issue during the rally. Sessions would be a long departure from the tenures of Attorney General Eric Holder, and outgoing Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Both worked during the Obama administration to increase accountability and oversight in American police departments, and pushed back on voting restrictions that impact predominantly black communities.
The Attorney General of the United States has become the arbiter against voting suppression across the United States since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the decision of Shelby County v. Holder in 2012, which now allows certain provisional power over voting laws in local jurisdictions.
“You cannot be the head of the Justice Department and protect voters when you advocate suppressing the vote, and blocking the vote,” said Sharpton when recalling the controversial closings of DMVs across Session’s home state of Alabama, where minorities in the state were supposed to obtain Voter IDs. Federal courts in North Carolina and Georgia both deemed similar actions discriminatory against minorities, and claimed they targeted African American communities with “almost surgical precision.” Sharpton also condemned the congressmen holding the confirmation hearings for not bringing this issue to the table for Sessions to speak on.
Sharpton went after both Democrats and moderate Republicans on the stage behind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorial calling for them to “get some guts.” The Reverend explained that constituents didn’t send their representatives to Washington to “make friends,” but to stand up for victims of police abuse, and those being marginalized by voter suppression.
“We come, not to appeal to Donald Trump, because he’s made it clear what his policies are and what his nominations are. We’ve come to say to the Democrats in the Senate and in the House, And to the moderate Republicans, to get some backbone,” Sharpton continued. “If you can’t do the job, then we’ll come back and bring you back home.”
In the weeks following Trump’s victory, and as it became apparent that Sessions would be his pick for Attorney General, Reverend Al Sharpton attacked the nomination during a National Action Network event at the organization’s Harlem Headquarters. Sharpton assailed the embattled Senator by referencing his own rhetoric, which included calling the NAACP “un-American,” and even speaking fondly and refusing to denounce the Klu Klux Klan.
Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP strongly oppose the nomination of Jeff Sessions, citing the Senator himself as saying that the Voting Rights Act was a “piece of intrusive legislation.”
“Rather than enforcing voting rights protections, Senator Sessions has instead made a career of seeking to dismantle them,” said the NAACP. “For decades, he has pursued the rare and mystical unicorn of voter fraud, while turning a blind eye to the ever-growing issue of voter suppression.”
The National Action Network’s plan to combat Session’s appointment is simple: For communities to hold the congressmen that do not vote against his nomination accountable, and to extend that accountability to entities in the private sector. “We are not going to compromise on those things. As we see the votes on confirmation, I’m making a list. We are going to go to senators’ offices and we are going to visit them right before the votes for Mr. Sessions,” explained Sharpton. “We need to make some house calls. We need to stay a little while and we need to stay in their offices while they are voting. Dr. King died fighting for these rights and that’s why we came to the King memorial.”
“If you sell us out, we’ll let everyone know who you are,” he shouted.
“How many of you are ready to have a session on Sessions with your Congressman?” asked Sharpton to the crowd. “We’re calling for a summit since the public sector has been closing on us. We need to select, in the private sector, the companies that are violating our principals, and we are going to have a national withdrawal of our dollars. We’re going to make sure the private sector balances out the public sector. So, if you’re going to cut us off in Washington, we’re going to cut you off at home.”
Sharpton bookended his condemnation of Sessions’ nomination at the rally by referencing a letter written to Congress by the American author, civil rights activist, and widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., strongly opposing his appointment to a federal judgeship in the 1980s—which became only the second failed nomination to that post in history.
“Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts,” wrote Coretta Scott King on the first page of her letter. “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.”
“We owe it to her to have a roll call on those who would put him in the Justice Department,” concluded Sharpton.