On Feb. 7, 2017, Elizabeth Warren began reading a letter by Coretta Scott King on the Senate floor.
The senator from Massachusetts read the letter, written three decades ago, in which the widow of Martin Luther King Jr. expressed her opposition to the nomination of Jeff Sessions now a senator from Alabama for a federal judgeship. Sessions, whose work to suppress black voters prevented him from becoming a federal judge in 1986, is expected to be confirmed as the next attorney general of the United States by the Republican-controlled Senate on Feb. 8.
Warren, however, didn’t make it through the whole letter on the Senate floor, that is.
Republicans, claiming she had violated Senate rules by impugning a colleague, voted to silence her. Warren was no longer allowed to speak out against Sessions’ nomination.
Of the decision to bar Warren from reading the letter, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell explained: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
But Warren refused to be silenced. Instead, she read the letter in its entirety on Facebook Live in the hallway outside the Senate chamber. The video has already amassed a staggering 6 million views:
During the debate on whether to make Jeff Sessions the next Attorney General, I tried to read a letter from Coretta Scott King on the floor of the Senate. The letter, from 30 years ago, urged the Senate to reject the nomination of Jeff Sessions to a federal judgeship. The Republicans took away my right to read this letter on the floor – so I’m right outside, reading it now.
Posted by U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday, February 7, 2017
The letter illustrates why Sessions’ past behavior makes him unfit to be our attorney general.
“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,” King wrote, citing Sessions’ partisan voting-fraud prosecutions to suppress black voters. “This simply cannot be allowed to happen.”
While King outlined the progress that led up to and followed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, she also outlined why having a man like Sessions in a position of power is so dangerous:
“However, blacks still fall far short of having equal participation in the electoral process. Particularly in the South, efforts continue to be made to deny blacks access to the polls, even where blacks constitute the majority of the voters. It has been a long, up-hill struggle to keep alive the vital legislation that protects the most fundamental right to vote. A person who has exhibited so much hostility to the enforcement of those laws, and thus, to the exercise of those rights by black people should not be elevated to the federal bench.”
“Based on his record, I believe his confirmation would have a devastating effect not only on the judicial system in Alabama, but also on the progress we have made everywhere toward fulfilling my husbands dream that he envisioned over twenty years ago.”
The choice to silence Warren backfired spectacularly for Senate Republicans.
In silencing Warren, Senate Republicans drew even more attention to King’s letter, reminding many why Sessions is simply unfit to hold the position. It also didn’t help that Sen. Jeff Merkley was allowed to read the same letter hours later; allowing a man to do the same exact thing you just barred a woman from doing is, at best, just bad optics.
If you’re outraged over Warren’s and King’s silencing on the Senate floor, speak out.
Regardless of whether Sessions is confirmed, you should call your senator and tell them if you approved of their vote. Donate to organizations like the ACLU that will be crucial in protecting civil rights for years to come. And share your thoughts online using hashtags like #LetLizSpeak and #ShePersists to amplify the message.
Even if one senator is silenced, your voice can still be heard.