The Rev. Al Sharpton and five other Black civil rights leaders had a “very brief” meeting March 7 with Attorney General Jeff Sessions that lasted 45 minutes, which, according to the leaders, was not nearly enough time to bring up all of the civil and human rights issues affecting Black communities.
Meanwhile, the group denounced President Donald Trump’s newly revised travel ban as unconstitutional, saying it promotes racial and ethic profiling and fuels hate-inspired incidents. They asked Sessions to counsel the president to rescind the executive order that now bars travelers from six Muslim-majority countries.
But, in the end, Sharpton said, the group secured a commitment from Sessions on one issue, which was to look into the Eric Garner case.
Garner, 43, died in 2014 after a New York City police officer placed him in an illegal chokehold in an arrest that was caught on video. Though the medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, a grand jury declined to indict the arresting officer. Garner’s death further galvanized the national Black Lives Matter movement, with protestors chanting his last words, “I can’t breathe.”
Sharpton emphasized that the group wasn’t seeking commitments from Sessions on any issue. The purpose of the meeting was for Sessions to hear the group’s civil rights agenda and their grievances on actions Trump and the DOJ have taken during the nascent administration, he said.
“We were not hostile, but we showed holy indignation and we continue to be indignant about any threat to our civil rights,” Sharpton, founder and president of the National Action Network, said at a news conference.
The meeting was closed to the press and leaders held a news conference once it concluded. They said they spent a large part of the meeting discussing voting rights. They said they also urged Sessions to uphold the Voting Rights Act and pushed him to fight against laws they say disenfranchise voters.
Trump has claimed, without evidence, that he lost the popular vote against Hillary Clinton due to millions of people illegally voting. Trump has also proposed forming a task force to investigate those claims.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that she interprets that as targeting Black and Latino voters and told Sessions to talk the president out of forming such a task force.
As the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, Sessions is obligated to investigate voter discrimination laws that impact racial minorities’ right to vote, Ifill said. “Any effort by this administration to advance an investigation in search of this mythological voter fraud that targets our communities will be met with our resistance.”
The group also expressed dismay at the DOJ’s decision to dismiss its earlier claim under the Obama administration that a Texas voter ID law disenfranchises voters of color. It was not lost on them that Sessions hails from Selma, Ala. and that the meeting occurred on the 52nd anniversary of the Bloody Sunday protest march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. The march led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
The leaders said they implored Sessions to keep federal consent decrees in place for more than a dozen troubled police departments, including Baltimore, that were found to have engaged in patterns of discrimination. In the past, Sessions has expressed skepticism to consent decrees and to investigations of police patterns and practices.
“We underscore the first point which is that the Civil and human rights are not partisan issues they are national issues and we expect the Attorney General to live up to his responsibility to enforce the laws fairly and without discrimination or favor for all,” Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, told the AFRO.
The leaders encouraged Sessions to speak out against and investigate the rash of hate crimes against minorities in the country. Going forward, they’ll continue monitoring the administration and looking for opportunities to provide input.
“It would be a grave mistake for the Justice Department to retreat in its responsibility to defend the constitutional rights of people who have been aggrieved by police departments in those 20 communities,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League. He described the wide-ranging meeting as “constructive and candid,” deeming it an important first step in an ongoing dialogue.
A DOJ spokesman told the AFRO that the agency had no comment on the leaders’ version of events and said Sessions would not be issuing a statement about the meeting.
Lon Walls contributed to this article.