Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., was interrupted while reading the words of Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor this week. Warren was reading a 1986 letter King wrote in opposition to the confirmation of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, then a U.S. attorney in Alabama, to a federal district judgeship. In a rare decision, the Senate Judiciary Committee rejected Sessions. Now, as the Senate debated a new confirmation of Sen. Sessions for the position of U.S. attorney general, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., silenced Warren shortly after she read Coretta Scott King’s words, invoking an obscure Senate rule against impugning colleagues. She was told to sit down and was barred from speaking further during the ongoing debate on Sessions.
King sent the letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Strom Thurmond, a fierce segregationist. She asked him to make the letter a part of the hearing’s formal record, but he didn’t. The 10-page letter was essentially lost until last month, when The Washington Post obtained and published a copy of it.
“The irony of Mr. Sessions’ nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods,” King wrote in her testimony, adding, “I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect on not only the judicial system in Alabama, but also on the progress we have made toward fulfilling my husband’s dream.” She wrote at length about Sessions’ record as a U.S. attorney in Alabama, aggressively prosecuting African-American voting-rights activists on charges of voter fraud in the case of “The Marion Three.” In that case, Albert Turner, an aide to Martin Luther King Jr., Turner’s wife, Evelyn, and Spencer Hogue were all members of the Perry County Civic League in rural Alabama. Sessions prosecuted them, alleging they tampered with ballots of elderly African-American voters.
The Marion Three faced well over 100 years in prison if convicted. Sessions was accused of selectively seeking cases to prosecute in “Black Belt” counties of Alabama, like Perry County, where a rising number of African-American registered voters threatened to eliminate the long-held political domination by whites. A federal judge threw out most of the charges, and a jury acquitted the three on the remaining charges.
“Civil rights leaders, including my husband and Albert Turner, have fought long and hard to achieve free and unfettered access to the ballot box,” Coretta Scott King continued. “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens in the district he now seeks to serve as federal judge.”
By reading King’s words, Elizabeth Warren was accused of imputing “conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.” After McConnell forced her to stop speaking, Warren replied, from the floor, “I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate. ... I ask leave of the Senate to continue my remarks.” After her request was denied, she was instructed to leave. She immediately exited, and, just outside the doors to the Senate chamber, read the entire King letter, broadcasting via Facebook Live. After 20 hours online, the 15-minute video had close to 10 million views.
McConnell, speaking from the Senate floor, said of his decision to silence Warren: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” His words created a firestorm across social media, with posts of solidarity with Warren marked by the hashtag “#ShePersisted.” Back on the Senate floor, several of Warren’s male colleagues read King’s letter aloud. None of them were rebuked by McConnell. In fact, in 2015, when fellow Republican Ted Cruz accused McConnell himself of being a liar, McConnell did not invoke the same Senate rule to bar Cruz from speaking.
On Wednesday evening, the Senate confirmed Jeff Sessions as the 84th attorney general of the United States, despite receiving more no votes—47—than any attorney general in U.S. history.
What also made history was a woman: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, bringing to life the words of another historic woman, Coretta Scott King, whose words will inform and inspire the resistance to Sessions as he assumes one of the most powerful positions in the Trump administration.