The Republican diverged from his prepared remarks before the Judiciary Committee to address the allegations that derailed his nomination for a federal judgeship in 1986.
"I abhor the Klan and its hateful ideology," Sessions said. "I never declared the NAACP was un-American."
Sessions called assertions "false" that he sympathized with hate groups, including the KKK, and sought to intimidate black voters in his failed 1985 voting fraud prosecution in Alabama involving three local black activists.
Protesters demonstrated at the hearing. As Sessions was walking in, two demonstrators dressed as members of the Ku Klux Klan and chanting "white power," were escorted out of the room by Capitol Police. And during an introduction of Sessions, a woman with Code Pink, while being led out of the room by Capitol Police, cried out, "This man is evil. You're evil."
Cherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said Sessions' nomination was "particularly fraught.''
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, noted that it is difficult for Democrats to scrutinize a long-time colleague who joined the Senate in 1997.
"The process is going to be fair and thorough," Feinstein said. "But today, we're not being asked to evaluate him as a senator. We're being asked to evaluate him as the attorney general of the United States.
"We cannot ignore that there are deep concerns and anxieties throughout America," Feinstein said.
Sessions said he respects the the importance of civil rights.
"I deeply understand the history of civil rights and the horrendous impact that relentless and systemic discrimination and the denial of voting rights has had on our African-American brothers and sisters," Sessions said. "I have witnessed it. We must continue to move forward and never back. I understand the demands for justice and fairness made by our LGBT community. I will ensure that the statutes protecting their civil rights and their safety are full enforced. I understand the lifelong scars born by women who are victims of assault and abuse.
"And if I am so fortunate to be confirmed as your attorney general, you can know that I understand the absolute necessity that all my actions must fall within the bounds of the Constitution and the laws of the United States," he added.
That includes accepting the 1973 Supreme Court decision allowing abortion and the 2015 Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage -- even if he doesn't agree with the court's decisions. At one time, Sessions called the Roe vs. Wade abortion ruling a "colossal" mistake.
He repeated this at today's hearing, but called the abortion decision "the law of the land," saying it has been "settled for some time" and promising: "I will respect it and follow it."
Regarding same-sex marriage, he said: "the Supreme Court has ruled on that, the dissents dissented vigorously, but it was 5-4 and ... I will follow that decision."
Sessions also said he would recuse himself from all investigations involving former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"I've given that thought, I believe the proper thing for me to do would be to recuse myself from questions involving those kinds of investigations involving Secretary Clinton that were raised during the campaign and could be otherwise connected to it," Sessions said, upon questioning by Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley.
"I believe that would be best for the country because we can never have a political dispute turn into a criminal dispute."