Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., is cashing in on the media frenzy about his recent declaration that Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants “black people to be in the back of the bus again” and is seizing every opportunity to stand in the spotlight.
Sadly, Gutierrez’s assertions are both uninformed and false. As an Alabama senator, Sessions lent powerful, behind-the-scenes support to a black community that was in jeopardy.
I first met Sessions in 2001 when Catherine Flowers, a community leader from a predominately black community in rural Alabama, came to my office to ask for help. Thirty-seven families faced imminent arrest or eviction after being cited for violating health regulations—raw sewage had been found flowing above ground near their homes.
These families feared legal penalties, but more than anything they wanted a solution to the problem, which posed a threat to their children’s health and well-being. Yet for an impoverished community where the average income was $20,000, the poverty rate exceeded 30 percent, and where families lived in dilapidated trailers, the cost of installing septic tanks was hopelessly beyond reach. The cost ranged from $6,000 to $12,000.
Desperate for help, local civic and political leaders reached out to their other elected officials, who ignored their pleas. That was not the case with Sessions. Upon receiving Flowers’ request for help, he immediately stepped in.
Sessions pushed forward Environmental Protection Agency appropriations to provide funds for the installment of septic tanks. He joined with my organization, then known as the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, to meet with a group called Household International, which brought in private-sector consultants to tackle the immediate problem of waste management. They also launched a five-year initiative to promote economic development, provide financial literacy training, and create housing opportunities in the community.
That wasn’t all. When Hyundai announced plans to build a $1 billion manufacturing plant just 6 miles from the Lowndes County border, Sessions recognized the prospects for parts manufacturing. He worked with my organization and Flowers to secure $4 million in grants from the Department of Commerce, as well as economic development that made possible the construction of two industrial parks that became second-tier auto suppliers.
In 2004, Sessions hosted roughly 100 corporate and policy representatives on Capitol Hill to learn about the Alabama Rural Initiative that Flowers was involved in. As a result of that meeting, Microsoft Corp. donated more than $65,000 worth of software to equip computer centers for the low-income residents of Lowndes County.
Representatives from the Department of Labor who attended the event also encouraged the Alabama Rural Initiative to apply for a planning grant for a career development workforce center. The grant was received in 2005, and a comprehensive plan was developed to bring together workforce preparation, adult remedial education, and legal assistance initiatives in Lowndes County to provide a road out of poverty for its residents.
Sessions’ support for Lowndes County also included efforts to preserve its historical legacy. When he received a letter from an angry constituent demanding that Alabama’s Interpretive Center along the Selma-Montgomery March trail be closed down, charging that it was “an orgy temple of hate,” Sessions toured the center’s exhibits with Flowers and declared that “everyone should know this history.”
Sessions was instrumental in transferring the authority for the Interpretive Center from the state of Alabama to the National Park Service, where it will be preserved in perpetuity.
I have known and worked with Sessions for more than 15 years and know firsthand that his leadership, compassion, and actions to lift up “the least among us” far outweigh the weak allegations that have recently been brought against him.
If Gutierrez is truly concerned about the plight of the black community, he should cease grandstanding with unsubstantiated soundbites and direct his attention to the killing fields of Chicago, his own backyard, where 1,138 people were shot and 213 killed already this year as of last week.
He could start by looking at effective models of community-based action, such as Project H.O.O.D. in Chicago’s deadly South Side, which has given refuge, hope, and a brighter future for hundreds of young people.