GOP Seeks a Safe Space From the Words of Coretta Scott King

Echoes of Trump in Senate Republicans’ silencing of Elizabeth Warren

Coretta Scott King speaking at the reception for the unveiling of Rosa Parks' bust sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., in 1991. (Courtesy the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Coretta Scott King speaking at the reception for the unveiling of Rosa Parks' bust sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., in 1991. (Courtesy the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
Posted February 9, 2017 at 5:00am

For a party and an administration that ran on being tough guys, afraid of nothing and no one, and disdainful of “PC culture,” whatever that’s supposed to mean, Republicans are, like President Donald Trump, proving to be poster boys (and, yes, the crew is testosterone-heavy) for the perpetually offended, perfect pictures of bullies who crumble when one of their targets dares talk back.

Twitter outrage over the latest “Saturday Night Live” parodies — of Trump and, this past week, Press Secretary Sean Spicer — are becoming weekly routines, expected and easy to dismiss. It’s just jokes, folks, no need to get so worked up. And piling partisan political significance onto the Super Bowl — the teams, commercials and half-time entertainment — is more than one football game can bear.

On Tuesday, with something more important at stake, the outrage machine was in full force. With Sen. Jeff Sessions poised to become the next attorney general, tasked to lead a Justice Department responsible for enforcing the laws of the country, a thorough vetting would seem to be in order.

Who would have thought that the words of human rights and civil rights leader Coretta Scott King could rattle the sensibilities of Senate Republicans, one of whom recently mocked New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer’s emotional reaction to the president’s travel ban without rebuke?

But that’s exactly what happened. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren tried to quote King’s critical opinion of the Alabama Republican, it was too much for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. He said the Democratic senator from Massachusetts had impugned the motives of Sessions and invoked Rule XIX, which effectively and with the backing of Senate Republicans, silenced Warren for the remainder of the discussion before Sessions’ inevitable confirmation. This is the same McConnell who played political hardball in refusing to even bring President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick, Merrick Garland, up for a hearing.

What were the fighting words from the widow of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? In her 1986 letter, addressed to then-Sen. Strom Thurmond, urging Congress to block Sessions’ ascension to a federal district court, King wrote: “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.”

She said that, as a U.S. attorney, Sessions pursued “politically motivated voting fraud prosecutions” and that he “lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge.” In the nine-page letter and statement, King concluded: “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.”

After she was shut down, Warren went on to read the letter on Facebook, drawing many more eyes to the offending note; the politically savvy McConnell may have doubled down on his base, but certainly made few fans as he found the words of an icon, who died in 2006, too tough to hear. When male senators were allowed to finish what Warren started, the optics grew uglier.

In 1986, Thurmond, the Judiciary Committee chairman, chose not to enter the letter into the congressional record. The South Carolina Republican had his own trail of segregationist words and actions — including a record-busting filibuster of a civil rights bill — which he was trying to step away from by then, so it was natural he would be sympathetic to Sessions’ own complicated past on civil rights issues. It’s telling, though, that both Democrats and Republicans rejected Sessions for a federal judicial post 30 years ago.

That was a past that is not yet past, considering the country’s tangled history of progress and setbacks on the road to fulfilling the promise of equality for all. How much has the United States changed in those three decades? Have the views of Sessions on voting and civil rights legislation and the role of law enforcement changed?

When states are passing laws restricting voting rights, and contentious relationships between law enforcement and the communities they cover are launching nationwide protests and consent decrees, it’s certainly worth an airing of opposing opinions, a look at past and present when envisioning a Trump/Sessions Justice Department.

Instead, Republicans searched for a safe space.

Sessions, himself, has indicated his mistrust of consent decrees that the Obama administration entered into with police departments for reform in cities such as Baltimore and Chicago. He has supported the Supreme Court’s decision to invalidate key sections of the Voting Rights Act, and there are questions over his views on state restrictions that proponents say protect the franchise and opponents insist limit it. Sessions will be tasked with interpreting the laws for citizens who are comforted and others who are alarmed by his positions 30 years ago through the present.

In some circles, speaking about any hint of racism or “racial insensitivity,” the less offensive preferred term, has become more taboo than racism itself, a notion both ridiculous and grotesque.

Why not let everyone speak, instead of calling a vote on a selectively enforced Senate rule? Besides his detractors, Sessions certainly has his supporters, including Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who happens to be African-American.

When the words of the late widow of a civil rights leader makes the Senate majority leader come down with a sudden attack of the vapors, you have to ask, who’s being sensitive?

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Charlotte Observer. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.