Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren was blocked from speaking on the Senate floor by Republican leaders after quoting from a 1980s era letter that Coretta Scott King once wrote criticizing Jeff Sessions.
The Congressional Black Caucus chairman later accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Republicans of trying “to silence Coretta Scott King from the grave.”
Watch the moment above, which occurred during Sessions’ nomination hearing for U.S. Attorney General. King is the widow of slain civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., and she had harsh words for Sessions in 1986 when Congress was considering his ultimately unsuccessful nomination for federal judge.
What the GOP felt crossed the line? McConnell said Warren ran afoul of Senate rules by, among other things, accusing Sessions of trying to “chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.” Warren, in her speech, quoted King’s letter. Coretta Scott King had written, referring to Sessions: “Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts.”
King also wrote, in part:
Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship.
You can read the Coretta Scott King letter here, as well as her lengthy statement to Congress about Sessions:
Warren later read the letter on Facebook Live.
Warren appeared stunned when Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stopped her from talking. CNN reported that Warren “is now barred from speaking on the floor for the remainder of the debate on Session’s nomination.”
“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,” she said, to no avail. She was told to take her seat. Warren’s speech had encompassed more than the letter, including comments against Sessions by figures like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.
The Senate voted 49 to 43 that Warren had violated Senate rules, according to The Washington Post.
McConnell later told The Washington Post of the decision to stop Warren from talking: “Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” The Post reported that Republicans also blocked a move by Democrats to have King’s letter placed into the Congressional record.
Warren later wrote on Twitter, “I spoke out about @SenatorSessions – until @SenateMajLdr McConnell decided to silence me.” On Twitter, people pointed out that it’s Black History Month.
Warren was told by McConnell that she was impugning the motives and conduct of Sessions. According to the Huffington Post, McConnell invoked Rule XIX, which says “No Senator in debate shall, directly or indirectly, by any form of words impute to another Senator or to other Senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a Senator.”
She was also chastised by Republican Senator Steve Daines, who said, according to CNN: “The senator is reminded that it is a violation of Rule 19 of the standing rules of the Senate to impugn another senator or senators any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator.”
Warren retorted: “I don’t think I quite understand. I’m simply reading what she wrote about what the nomination of Sessions to be a federal court judge meant and what it would mean in history for her.”
Daines responded: “You stated that a sitting senator is a disgrace to the Department of Justice,” the video shows. Warren then returned to speaking about Sessions and was told to stop. The entire saga went on for at least 20 minutes
In early January, the Washington Post obtained the 1986 letter, which was not made public at the time. When Sessions was an Alabama U.S. Attorney, he launched voter fraud prosecutions to intimidate black voters, King wrote. She also wrote: “I do not believe Jefferson Sessions possesses the requisite judgment, competence, and sensitivity to the rights guaranteed by the federal civil rights laws to qualify for appointment to the federal district court.”
The Congressional Black Caucus Chairman, Congressman Cedric Richmond (D-LA-02), issued a statement on the incident. “Republican senators’ decision tonight to silence Coretta Scott King from the grave is disgusting and disgraceful,” he wrote. “Mrs. King’s characterization of then U.S. Attorney Senator Sessions was accurate in 1986 and it is accurate now. He is as much of a friend to the Black community and civil rights as Bull Connor and the other Good Old Boys were during the Civil Rights Movement.”
Other colleagues also came to Warren’s defense.
Democrats accused Republicans of selective enforcement of the Senate rule, saying nothing happened to Sen. Ted Cruz when he once called McConnell a liar.
King’s daughter, Bernice King, expressed support for Warren on Twitter. Coretta Scott King died in 2006.
King wasn’t alone in questioning Sessions back then, either. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan had nominated Sessions to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Alabama, but the Senate Judiciary Committee ultimately voted against confirming him after several former colleagues of Sessions went on record accusing him of racist language and behavior. Among other things, Sessions was accused of saying, in a private conversation, that the NAACP and ACLU were “un-American” and “Communist-inspired,” CNN reported.
An African-American man also claimed that Sessions said he used to think that the Ku Klux Klan was okay until he found out that they smoked marijuana, which Sessions said was a joke, according to The New York Times. Sessions was also accused of using a racial slur in 1981, which he denies. You can read a round-up of the Sessions racism accusations here.
Sessions has defended his record, saying, “When I was [a U.S. Attorney], I signed 10 pleadings attacking segregation or the remnants of segregation, where we as part of the Department of Justice, we sought desegregation remedies.”
Many people on Twitter were aghast that the words of Coretta Scott King were effectively silenced in the halls of Congress.
The hashtag #LetLizSpeak trended on Twitter.