In 1986, Coretta Scott King wrote a letter in opposition to then-U.S. attorney Jeff Sessions.
King’s historic three decade-old letter, which helped prevent Sessions from becoming a federal judge, was invoked again by Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren on Tuesday night. During the Senate debate over Sessions’ nomination to attorney general, Warren read, “Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.”
She also quoted the late senator Edward M. Kennedy’s 1986 remark about Sessions: “He is, I believe, a disgrace to the Justice Department and he should withdraw his nomination and resign his position."
Apparently, this was too much for Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and senate Republicans. According to the Washington Post, they pointed to a rarely used rule to formally silence Warren and prevent her from participating in the rest of the Sessions debate.
“The Senator has impugned the motives and conduct of our conduct of our colleague from Alabama,” McConnell said. The Senate then voted 49 to 43—along party lines—to confirm that Warren had violated Rule 19 of the Senate.
Rule 19 has been used in extremely rare cases in the Senate, and was originally a result of a fist fight between Senators more than a century ago. Trying to prevent violent outbursts like that, the Senate decided that senators are not allowed to “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.”
The Senate, however, has let many instances of Rule 19 violations slide by, including Ted Cruz calling McConnell a liar in 2015.
Senator Steve Daines was presiding over the Senate at the beginning of Warren’s address when he issued the first Rule 19 warning to Warren, NPR reports. Shortly after, McConnell decided that Warren’s historic quotations had crossed the line.
“The Senator will take her seat,” Daines said.
“I am surprised that the words of Coretta Scott King are not suitable for debate in the United States Senate,” Warren said in response to the Rule 19 invocation.
McConnell attempted to defend the decision by basically recounting the history of feminism.
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” McConnell concluded.
Little did he realize that his rationale for silencing Elizabeth Warren would turn a semi-ordinary night in the Senate into a national rallying call for Warren’s supporters. McConnell’s line went instantly viral on Twitter as social media users posted #LetLizSpeak.
"She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted" sounds like a great new rallying cry for the feminist movement.
— Nisha Chittal (@NishaChittal) February 8, 2017
"She was warned. She was given an explanation. #NeverthelessShePersisted."
— Dawn Laguens (@dawnlaguens) February 8, 2017
"Nevertheless, she persisted." Mitch McConnell just gave Elizabeth Warren the title of her autobiography, if not a line of T-shirts.
— David Simon (@AoDespair) February 8, 2017
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) February 8, 2017
You can even buy T-shirts boasting the “Nevertheless, she persisted,” slogan.
Warren did not let McConnell or GOP Senators silence her completely, though. She soon took to Facebook Live to read King’s letter, in full. The video garnered more than six million views.
Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico took the Senate floor the next day, formally entering the letter into the Senate record and finally reading King’s letter in full. Sen. Bernie Sanders also read the letter aloud.
I fully understand the importance of Rule XIX—but Mrs. King’s words and Sen Warren’s voice should not be silenced. #LetLizSpeak
— Tom Udall (@SenatorTomUdall) February 8, 2017
You can read King’s letter here.