Then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, Sessions' nomination for the state's U.S. District Court was rejected in 1986 after other U.S. attorneys testified that he was hostile to civil rights cases and once called an African-American lawyer “boy," the New York Times noted Tuesday.
According to a 2002 report by the New Republic, the attorney in question testified that Sessions also warned him to "be careful what you say to white folks."
"Had Mr. Sessions merely urged me to be careful about what I said to 'folks,' that admonition would have been quite reasonable," the attorney wrote in a statement provided to reporters, according to a contemporaneous New York Times report. "But that was not the language that he used."
Sessions denied making most of the remarks. He apologized for one comment he made in 1981, during a murder investigation involving the Ku Klux Klan: That he had thought the Klan was alright until he heard that some members smoked marijuana. He dismissed the remark as a joke, according to Tuesday's report by the Times.
A Justice Department employee also came forward and testified that Sessions derided the NAACP and ACLU as "Communist-inspired" and "un-American." Sessions repeated that characterization during his own confirmation hearings, according to the New Republic, and went on to describe the Voting Rights Act as a "piece of intrusive legislation."
Sessions said that he "meant no harm" by his remarks about the NAACP, the Times reported back then.
He denied being racist, the New Republic reported, and defended himself by citing his children's attendance at integrated schools as well as multiple occasions when he shared a hotel room with a black lawyer.
Vice President Joe Biden, then a Delaware senator and the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, urged then-President Ronald Reagan to withdraw his nomination of Sessions from consideration, according to the 1986 Times report. Biden called prospects for the nomination "bleak" in a contemporaneous interview, saying Sessions' comments demonstrated that he was unfit to serve in a federal judgeship.
The CQ Almanac noted at the time it was "only the second time in 48 years" that the Senate Judiciary Committee had refused to send a judicial nominee to the full chamber.
Watch an archival video of CBS News' 1986 coverage on the Senate's rejection of Sessions' nomination below via Democracy Now, starting at 39:23: