Born in Bolton, Mississippi, on 26 September 1931, to an Episcopal minister and his wife, Clifton Farr Sessions graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi in 1955 and started working at a Hattiesburg radio station. Shortly thereafter, the Jackson office of United Press International hired him as a reporter.
As a white Mississippian, he assumed that many of the people he covered supported the state’s official policies about segregation and white supremacy. By giving thorough coverage to violent incidents, the Citizens’ Councils, state leaders and their policies, and numerous civil rights protests, Sessions developed an interest in uncovering the ways white supremacists operated and the ways activists were resisting. One controversial 1958 piece described a Citizens’ Council contest that encouraged high school students to write and present lectures about race relations and limited government. Sessions called the program “a full scale effort to wipe out any integrationist leanings among the children.” One white Mississippi television executive responded with what he considered a damning insult: “Sessions, you’re an integrationist. Crawl back under your rock. You’ve been exposed.”
As part of his coverage of the civil rights movement, Sessions developed a friendship with Medgar Evers, the head of Mississippi’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The relationship was important enough to Sessions and his wife, Shirley, that they violated Jim Crow by inviting Medgar Evers and his wife, Myrlie, to their home for dinner. When Medgar was shot in the driveway of the Evers home in June 1963, Myrlie called Sessions even before she telephoned the police.
Sessions left Mississippi in 1964, working first for United Press International in Washington, D.C., and then helping to found the National Journal, which offered straightforward news about federal government agencies. Sessions served as the Journal’s editor in 1970 and 1971 and then took a series of communications positions in the US Justice Department; the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; and the private sector. Parkinson’s disease forced his retirement in 1990, and he and his wife moved to Biloxi, where he died on 24 December 2005.
- Joe Holley, Washington Post (29 December 2005)
- Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation (2007)