As a black man from Alabama, Willie Huntley Jr. has deep reverence for civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis, an organizer of the landmark marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. So Huntley got a little emotional earlier this month when he found himself in the same Senate hearing room as Lewis.
“When he walked through the door, I melted,” Huntley recalled. “I was thinking, ‘This man shook hands with Martin Luther King Jr.,’ and I was just in awe.”
The awkward twist to this encounter is that Huntley and his hero were in the same room, but on opposing sides of the issue at hand: the confirmation of Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican whom President Donald Trump has nominated for attorney general.
Sessions is arguably Trump’s most controversial Cabinet pick; a Senate Judiciary Committee vote scheduled for Tuesday was pushed to next week for more deliberation.
At the hearing, Lewis, a Democrat representing Georgia, wondered aloud whether Sessions’ calls for law and order were the same old Deep South code for violating “the human and civil rights of the poor, the dispossessed, people of color.” Huntley, a former assistant U.S. attorney, was one of three black men who came to rebut the racism charges with personal anecdotes about Sessions’ support for black colleagues and his civil rights-related prosecutions in Alabama.
Since the hearing, which was televised across the country, Huntley and the other black allies of Sessions have been pilloried on social media: Uncle Tom, house Negro, token. In interviews this week, they said they’d tried to tune out the slurs and hadn’t seen the racially loaded memes depicting them as tap dancing or shucking and jiving.
They acknowledge that standing up for Sessions put them at odds with civil rights luminaries like Lewis and large swaths of black America, but they said they had no regrets. The Sessions they know simply doesn’t square with the image presented by his critics, and they felt compelled to defend him.
“He’s not a racist person. I’ve seen it up close and personal,” said Jesse Seroyer, a former U.S. marshal who also testified on Sessions’ behalf. “You have to fight through all the criticism and look at the big picture. Whatever they’ve seen or whatever they’ve heard or whatever they believe, I know him.”
The idea that Sessions would be a just steward of the criminal justice system goes against the conclusions of virtually the entire civil rights establishment. Critics say his record shows a consistent hostility toward civil rights organizing, LGBT issues, Muslims and an immigration revamp. He welcomed the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, which offered federal protections from discrimination, as “good news, I think, for the South.”
On the eve of the confirmation hearing, the NAACP legal defense fund released a scathing report on Sessions’ record, finding that “an unrelenting hostility toward civil rights and racial justice has been the defining feature of Jeff Sessions’ professional life.”
The three black friends who testified on behalf of Sessions pushed back against that narrative, their stories adding new questions to the public’s understanding of the man likely to become the nation’s top law enforcement official. Is Sessions a casually racist good ol’ boy who exaggerates his civil rights record and makes it harder for minorities to vote? Or is he a by-the-book conservative with a race-blind moral center and the integrity to uphold federal laws even if he doesn’t support them?
As Sessions’ friends found out, African-Americans who take the latter view better have thick skin. The third black man to testify for Sessions was William Smith, an attorney who was appointed by Sessions as chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee and who’s known him for two decades. Smith later defended his stance on CNN, where another black guest stopped just short of calling him a token on air.
“Because you are the one black guy that he hired on the committee doesn’t make him a civil rights leader, William,” commentator Angela Rye told Smith.
Huntley, who was interviewed by phone from his law practice in Mobile, Alabama, said he’d known he was courting controversy by speaking up for Sessions and had consulted a small circle of friends and relatives beforehand. All but one supported his decision, he said.
Who was the holdout?
“My sister,” Huntley said, laughing.
Huntley’s testimony recounted how he, too, had once been leery of Sessions because of the racism claims that had torpedoed Sessions’ bid for a federal judgeship. Huntley testified that he’d thought long and hard when Sessions called him out of the blue a few years after that to offer him an assistant U.S. attorney position.
Huntley said his view of Sessions had begun to shift after their first meeting, a dinner in Montgomery that turned into a three-hour discussion of football, religion, politics, family.
“We talked about all those things, and during the course of that meeting with him, I got the feeling more and more that the allegations that had been spread through the press aren’t true,” Huntley testified.
Within minutes of his testimony, Huntley recalled, he began to receive text messages, emails and phone calls from friends across the country. In hindsight, Huntley said, perhaps he’d been naive not to anticipate such impassioned responses to his public defense of Sessions. For the most part, he said, the messages were supportive; some skeptical friends told him that his testimony had helped calm their fears.
The ones labeling him a sellout, Huntley said, don’t even register.
“You know what I say to those who called me Uncle Tom? I say thank you,” Huntley said, referring to the title character of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” a 19th-century anti-slavery novel that also reinforced stereotypes about black people. “That means they never read the book. Once you do, you’ll see that Uncle Tom was a strong religious figure.”