By design, the U.S. Senate is a deliberative body in which members have every opportunity to speak their minds on the subject at hand. There are exceptions tied to decorum: Attack or impugn a colleague and the chamber reserves the right to strip speaking privileges from the offending member. On Tuesday night, it did just that to Elizabeth Warren, silencing the Massachusetts senator in the midst of final debate over Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, President Trump’s nominee for attorney general.*
This extraordinary step was initiated by Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Senate majority leader. “The senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama, as warned by the chair,” declared McConnell during Warren’s remarks, invoking a rule that prohibits debating senators from ascribing “to another senator or to other senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.” When Warren asked the chair, Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, a Republican, to continue speaking, McConnell raised a second objection, and Daines directed the Massachusetts senator to take her seat. A party-line vote of 49 Republicans to 43 Democrats made the decision final: Elizabeth Warren would leave the floor, silenced from further debate.
What did Elizabeth Warren say? How did she “impugn the motives and conduct” of the senator from Alabama? She read a letter. Specifically, Warren read from a 1986 letter by Coretta Scott King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., on the subject of then–federal prosecutor Jeff Sessions, submitted in opposition to his nomination for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama. It was because of the letter that McConnell sought to silence Warren. And it’s in revisiting that letter that we can see how McConnell was right to be shook. Not because King was mistaken, but because her 30-year-old indictment of Jeff Sessions is now an indictment of the entire Republican Party.
In Sessions, King saw a throwback to the Jim Crow officials who fought to disenfranchise black Americans throughout the South. “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 a federal judge," wrote King in her 10-page statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which ultimately rejected Sessions in a 10–8 vote with two Republicans joining eight Democrats in voting against Ronald Reagan’s nominee. “Mr. Sessions’ conduct as U.S. Attorney, from his politically-motivated voting fraud prosecutions to his indifference toward criminal violations of civil rights law, indicates that he lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge.”
King went on to describe Sessions’ role in pursuing and prosecuting a trio of black voting rights activists in Perry County, Alabama:
“Mr. Sessions sought to punish older black civil rights activists ... who had been key figures in the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. These were persons who, realizing the potential of the absentee vote among Blacks, had learned to use the process within the bounds of legality and had taught others to do the same. The only sin they committed was being too successful in gaining votes.”
King detailed clear abuses of authority, from selective prosecution—ignoring allegations of similar behavior by whites—to pressuring and intimidating witnesses. “Many elderly blacks were visited multiple times by the FBI who then hauled them over 180 miles by bus to a grand jury in Mobile when they could more easily have testified at a grand jury twenty miles away in Selma. These voters, and others, have announced they are now never going to vote again,” King wrote.
For McConnell and his Republican colleagues, King’s critique of Sessions’ work was a personal attack. He saw this well-grounded accusation of racism as worse than the actions it described. And so he called for silence. “She was warned,” said McConnell of Warren. “She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
Despite the pivotal role the letter played in Sessions’ confirmation hearing in 1986, the then-chair of the Judiciary Committee, Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, never entered it into the congressional record. If not for thorough digging by the Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery and others, it might have been lost to history. Now that we have the letter, however, we can see how relevant it is not just to Sessions’ bid for the attorney general’s office but as a judgment on the Republican Party as a whole.
Across the country, Republicans have made voter suppression a priority, targeting blacks and other disadvantaged groups, shielded from the Voting Rights Act by a GOP majority on the Supreme Court that gutted the law and opened the gates to a flood of new obstacles and new restrictions. Wisconsin Republicans passed strict ID requirements and closed polling places in the state’s urban centers. Alabama Republicans imposed similar ID requirements and then closed Department of Motor Vehicle offices in predominantly black counties. North Carolina Republicans targeted black Americans with what one court called “surgical precision,” slashing the kinds of voting used by black voters while imposing strict requirements for identification, excluding forms of ID most commonly used by black people in the state. At this moment in Virginia, Republican lawmakers are pushing a constitutional amendment to strengthen the state’s already-harsh felon disenfranchisement law—a law that, as early as 2016, disenfranchised nearly one-quarter of all black Virginians.
Thirty years ago, Republicans seemed embarrassed by Sessions’ efforts to keep black Americans from the polls—embarrassed enough, at least, to capitulate to the Democratic opposition. Today, those efforts are central to the GOP’s agenda, the first steps taken whenever and wherever the party takes power. Already President Trump has promised a commission on the “voter fraud” that he blames for his popular vote loss.
It’s no wonder McConnell sought to silence Warren. More than a critique of a younger Jeff Sessions, King’s letter is an indictment of the present-day Republican Party, a party that has forsaken its heritage as the “party of Lincoln” and adopted the cause of Lincoln’s antagonists—of Lincoln’s enemies. Under Donald Trump, the GOP has completed its transformation into the party of white resentment, the party of white reaction, the party of Redemption.
*Correction, Feb. 8, 2017: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated when Sen. Elizabeth Warren was found in violation of Rule XIX. It was Tuesday night, not Wednesday night. (Return.)