AG Jeff Sessions–he’s tongue-tied when it’s time to denounce White extremism hate-crimes. Photo Gage Skidmore-Flickr
Several African-American civil rights leaders sent a joint letter strongly urging U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to alter the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) historic commitment to the civil rights laws that Congress has tasked it with enforcing. The draft strategic plan, which leaked to media outlets last week, reportedly indicates that enforcing these core civil rights statutes is, remarkably, not among DOJ’s priorities.
The joint letter, which was signed by organizations representing predominantly African-American stakeholders, calls on the Department not to shun its legal and moral responsibility to protect our fundamental rights. “Aggressively enforcing our civil rights laws is essential to ensuring equal opportunity and addressing discrimination in our schools, neighborhoods, places of work, voting booths, and criminal justice system,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. “The Attorney General has a legal obligation to protect our fundamental rights, and we will not stand idly by as he attempts to write civil rights out of the Department’s portfolio.”
“We write in response to reports describing a draft of Strategic Plan of the Department of Justice, setting forth the priorities that will be the focus of the Department’s work for the coming four years. Enforcing the nation’s civil rights laws does not appear among the priorities reportedly identified in this Plan,” the letter dated March 12, reads, in part.
“As you know, the Civil Rights Act of 1957 created the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, which is responsible for ‘uphold[ing] the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans’ by ‘enforc[ing] federal statutes prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, disability, religion, familial status and national origin.'”
“These include the statutes that have come to define the Civil Rights Movement: the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968,” the letter continues. “Vigorous enforcement of these statutes remains essential to remedying the persistent discrimination that denies millions of Americans equal opportunities to work, to vote, to send their children to good schools, and to live in neighborhoods where their families have the chance to thrive.”
The letter adds: “More recent civil rights legislation has continued to depend on the Department of Justice for enforcement, including the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the Law Enforcement Misconduct Statute—which empowers the Attorney General to take action to eliminate patterns and practices of police misconduct—and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Nearly a year ago we met in your office to share with you our sense of urgency about the need for your office to affirmatively undertake its obligation to lead in enforcing the nation’s civil rights laws. We spoke specifically about voting rights, the investigation of unconstitutional patterns of policing, and the prosecution of hate crimes. You indicated at the end our meeting that you would take our concerns under consideration.”
“Under your leadership, the Department reversed its long-held position supporting our constitutional challenge to Texas’ voter ID law notwithstanding a federal court’s ruling in our favor, rolled back federal policing reform efforts, and expressed interest in relitigating the constitutionality of affirmative action despite repeated Supreme Court rulings upholding it,” the letter continued, calling out the attorney general. “Despite a 57% rise in hate crimes and our explicit request at our meeting that you speak out unequivocally against hate crimes and commit increased resources to investigating groups and individuals engaged in white supremacist violence, you have failed to articulate any measures directly addressed to violent white extremism.”
“In closing, we remind you of the words you spoke at the confirmation hearing for former Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. You stated, ‘This is the top law enforcement job in America, not a political position, and anyone who holds this position must have total fidelity to the laws and Constitution of the United States.'”
The letter was co-authored by Ifill; Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League; Derrick Johnson, President and CEO of the NAACP; Reverend Al Sharpton, President and Founder of the National Action Network; and Melanie L. Campbell, President and CEO of the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation and Black Women’s Roundtable.