|This 1906 Cartoon depicts the Senate as a more fearsome place than it is today.|
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
This should not be a partisan issue.
The United States Senate has done something that they ought not to have done.
They have confirmed Jeff Sessions as Attorney General of the United States, which means they have placed a man with a public record of racism in charge of overseeing the Civil Rights laws that are supposed to protect our citizens against racial discrimination. And they have placed a man opposed to the equal treatment of our LGBTQ citizens in charge of protecting those citizens.
Along the way they silenced Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren using an obscure Senate regulation called “Rule Nineteen,” which dictates polite discourse in Senate debates and states in its second section:
“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.”Her sin was in reading a letter from Coretta Scott King written in opposition to the appointment of Sessions to a Federal judgeship after he was nominated by President Reagan. In her letter she detailed how Sessions had worked against Civil Rights and had used the Voting Rights Act to harass civil rights workers who were trying to help African Americans to vote by absentee ballot.
He used an act designed to prevent voter suppression in order to suppress voters.
Sessions was defeated for the judgeship, but he was elected to the senate a few years later. And as a senator he has continued to oppose Civil Rights for African Americans as well as for LGBTQ persons.
Curiously, after voting to use Rule Nineteen to silence Senator Warren, no one objected a day later when several of her male colleagues read the full text of the letter into the Congressional Record.
In an article published in TheAtlantic.com, Russell Berman reviewed the genesis of Rule Nineteen:
“In February 1902, the Senate was debating a treaty to annex the Philippines when Senator Benjamin ‘Pitchfork Ben’ Tillman became infuriated that his fellow South Carolina Democrat and onetime close friend, John McLaurin, had switched his position to join Republicans in supporting the accord. McLaurin, Tillman raged, had succumbed to ‘improper influences’; Republicans had showered him with perks and privileges, Tillman charged, and he had caved in return.
“A former South Carolina governor whose statue still stands on the statehouse grounds, Tillman has drawn more recent attention for being a white supremacist who advocated until his death the lynching of black people who tried to vote. Back then, he was known for his outspokenness and his ‘less than courteous’ manner of debating in the Senate. Alerted to Pitchfork Ben’s comments, an incensed McLaurin ‘dashed into the Senate chamber and denounced Tillman's statement as “a willful, malicious, and deliberate lie,’” according to a Senate history of the incident. Tillman responded by physically attacking McLaurin ‘with a series of stinging blows,’ the historians wrote, and efforts to separate the brawling Southerners ‘resulted in misdirected punches landing on other members.’”The problem is not that Attorney General Sessions engaged in racist acts thirty years ago. The problem is that he has not apologized, nor has he clearly stated a present understanding that what he did then was wrong. But it does not end there. He has continued to oppose Civil Rights from that time until now.
The unintentional connection to “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman through the invocation of Rule XIX is worth a closer look.
In an article published in the Washington Post, Sarah Larimer cites an Associated Press report that up until his death in 1918, Tillman was an unapologetic defender of his “post-Reconstruction tactics to restore white rule in the then-majority-black state by killing any black who tried to vote.”
“The purpose of our visit was to strike terror,” he said in the Senate in 1900 about the so-called Hamburg Massacre of 1876, where his militia killed black Republicans. “And the next morning when the Negroes who had fled to the swamp returned to the town the ghastly sight which met their gaze of seven dead Negroes lying stark and stiff certainly had its effect.”So a rule first voted into effect to civilize the behavior of a man who once practiced the most extreme form of voter suppression was used to suppress the witness of Coretta Scott King and silence the dissent of Elizabeth Warren. And this was done in order to support the nomination of a man who continues to oppose the civil rights of minorities.
Sometimes it feels like we have gone through the looking glass.
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