The face of Jim Crow wasn't always the hooded Klansman, the defiant governor at the schoolhouse door or the club-wielding sheriff. It often smiled, uttered smooth words and offered a pat on the shoulder to quell the bubbling uprising.
Racism, in other words, could wear the mask of congeniality, beckoning its prey into a can't-we-all-just-get-along world in which members of every race could live peaceably in their assigned place – white people at the top, black people at the bottom.
Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions would have us believe that because he has distanced himself from the inflammatory racist rhetoric of such fellow Alabamans as George Wallace or Theophilus Eugene "Bull" Connor, or for that matter of his own past, that we should be at ease allowing him to be our next attorney general, with responsibility for ensuring that our laws are applied with fairness, justice and equality.
But two African-American members of Congress – New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and Georgia Rep. John Lewis – on Wednesday made sure that the Senate and the country was not distracted by the makeover that Sessions presented to the country during his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.
When the Alabama senator went through questioning before the committee, he "sounded more MLK than KKK," columnist Dana Milbank of The Washington Post observed, adding that "at least for a day, Sessions took pains to present himself as inoffensive."
But the cautions of Lewis and Booker were clear and pointed.
"It doesn't matter how Sen. Sessions may smile, how friendly he may be, how he speaks to you, but we need someone who's going to stand up, speak up and speak out for the people who need help for people who have been discriminated against," Lewis, the civil rights veteran, said. "We need someone as an attorney general who can look out for all of us and not just for some of us."
Booker, taking the extraordinary step of testifying against a sitting senator during a cabinet confirmation hearing, also cut to the heart of why Sessions is not qualified to be attorney general.
"Sen. Sessions has not demonstrated a commitment to a central requisite of the job to aggressively pursue the Congressional mandate of civil rights, equal light rights and justice for all of its citizens," he said. "In fact, in numerous times during his career he has demonstrated a hostility towards these convictions, and has worked to frustrate attempts to elevate these ideals.
"If confirmed, Sen. Sessions will be required to pursue justice for women, but his record indicates that he won't. He will be expected to defend the equal rights of gay and lesbian and transgender Americans, but his record indicates that he won't. He will be expected to defend voting rights, but his record indicates that he won't. He will be expected to defend the rights of immigrants, and affirm their human dignity, but the record indicates that he won't. His record as attorney General indicates that he would object to that the growing national bipartisan movement toward criminal justice reform. His record indicates that we cannot count on him to support state and national average toward bringing justice to the criminal justice system."
The Center for American Progress has produced a Facebook video with the five key things you need to know about Jeff Sessions, from his time as Alabama state attorney general to his recent votes in the Senate.
"The next attorney general must bring hope and healing to the country. And this requires a more courageous empathy than Sen. Session's record demonstrates," Booker said.
Sessions' lack of "courageous empathy" leaks through even as he promises for the sake of the spotlight trained on him right now that he will enforce the laws of the land. As a new administration takes power that was elected in part as a backlash against a more inclusive understanding of what justice requires, it is imperative that we have an attorney general that pushes against that backlash, not a person, like Sessions, who symbolizes it.