For more than 50 years, the United States has been guided by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and other measures enacted in the wake of Jim Crow.
The U.S. Attorney General has traditionally been in the front lines enforcing the statutes, which specifically prohibit discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
They have been particular bulwarks against overt racism by police agencies and government institutions.
But Sessions has a history of making racist statements going back to his days as U.S. Attorney in Alabama, according to news reports, that raise questions about his commitment to civil rights.
Sessions lost a federal judgeship appointment in 1986 after The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected his nomination. He was only the second nominee in 50 years to be voted down.
During hearings, Thomas Figures, a black assistant U.S. attorney who served under him, said Sessions repeatedly called him “boy.” He said Sessions told him he was “OK” with the Klu Klux Klan until he learned the smoked pot.
J. Gerald Hebert, then a Justice Department lawyer, also testified that Sessions told him the NAACP, ACLU and other civil rights organizations were “un-American” and “Communist-inspired.”
Hebert told CNN Thursday he stands by the testimony.
“Things that I had heard firsthand from him were things that demonstrated gross racial insensitivity to black citizens of Alabama and the United States,” Hebert said.
The late Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, led the Senate fight against his federal Judgeship nomination.
During the hearing, he called Sessions “a throwback to a shameful era, which I know both black and white Americans thought was in our past.”
“It is inconceivable to me that a person of this attitude is qualified to be a U.S. attorney, let alone a U.S. federal judge,” he added.
Sessions angrily denied the allegations at the time. He was elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama in 1996.
Hebert shares fears that Sessions might disregard the civil rights division of the Justice Department. “He has never backed off from the comments he made at that time. He has never apologized for them,” he told CNN.
The Department’s Civil Rights Division was created by the Civil Rights Act of 1957, “to uphold the civil and constitutional rights of all Americans, particularly some of the most vulnerable members of our society,” according to the Justice Department’s Web site.
Most recently, the division under Obama administration Attorney Genral Loretta Lynch, has brought cases against an Alabama deputy sheriff who lied under oath about beating an African-American and a Mississippi corrections officer who covered up an inmate assault.
It also sued the City of Yonkers, New York, to force it to improve its police department policies, and is suing a Washington state potato company for discriminating against immigrants.
Whether Sessions would continue similar aggressive enforcement remains to be seen.
In the Senate, he heads the Senate Judiciary Committee and was instrumental in investigating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
Congressional Benghazi hearings were widely denounced as witch hunts. The mother of Ambassador Stephens refused to blame Clinton and criticized Republicans for politicizing her son’s death.
Sessions endorsed Trump early in his campaign and became a key advisor during the election, according to The Washington Post.
He reportedly has helped Trump formulate his immigration policy, chaired Trump’s national security advisory committee and had a hand in helping Trump select a runningmate.
In his two-decade Senate career, Sessions has been a steadfast opponent of every measure that tried to carve a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
He’s also fought legal immigration, including guest worker programs for illegal immigrants and visa programs for foreign workers in science, math and high-tech, according to The Post.
Despite being Trump’s pick for the job, his confirmation this time around is not a shoe-in.
Republicans hold a slim 52-48 Senate majority. Sessions, at a minimum, will need every Republican vote, if Democrats oppose him. Hearings are expected in January.