Senator Elizabeth Warren, the current presumptive Democratic nominee for President in the next election, tried to read a letter from Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King’s widow, describing voting rights violations by then State Attorney General Jeff Sessions but she was shut down by the repeated complaints of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republican from Kentucky.

The letter

Among other things the late Mrs King said about Sessions in the letter, he 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."

The letter was written 30 years ago in opposition to then Senator Session’s nomination for a Federal Judgeship which he was denied after repeated testimony about his blatant racism.

It was addressed to Strom Thurmond of the Senate Judiciary Committee, a Republican Senator who served for South Carolina for 47 years. Senator Thurmond was a vocal opponent of integration. It was also copied to then-Senator Joe Biden, who just retired from politics after serving as Vice President to President Obama for eight years.

Mrs King’s message to the committee which was holding hearings on the nomination, complaints that, while head of the legal department in Alabama, Jeff Sessions worked diligently to prevent black voters from getting to the polls and also keeping them from registering.

After being banned from speaking again in the Senate during the confirmation debate, senator warren immediately walked to a room with video capabilities and read the entire letter onto a Facebook page where it generated millions of views in just a few hours.

What rule?

An obscure Senate rule banning one member from directly addressing a fellow Senator by name and also from criticising them, was used to stop Massachusetts Senator Warren from reading the letter from the civil rights icon.

Senate rule, No. 19, says that fellow Senators can’t "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."

Although the Senate rule is supposed to help maintain decorum and keep Senators from fighting openly on the floor of the Senate, Senator Warren spoke heatedly about how this was different because Sessions was not being discussed as a Senator, but was being opposed as the Trump nominee for the next Attorney General.

Gerrymandering and other schemes

What Mrs King was complaining about was how Sessions worked with the governor and the Republican party officials to keep black votes suppressed using various strategies.

Those in the UK who remember what rotten boroughs are will be familiar with the effect of Gerrymandering, if not the actual concept or how it works in the US.

This is the practice of the party in power redrawing the voting districts in such a manner that the opposition can’t win in any district because just enough voters of the opposition to the current party are shifted into other districts which are predominantly held by the party in power.

With 32 out of 50 states now held by Republican governors and legislatures, those states are now essentially locked into voting Republican, by the redrafting of districts, until or unless some major event occurs and the parties holding the state changes.

All of the southern states where blacks are a large part of the population are held by the Republicans who have systematically tried to pass voting restrictions which mainly impact poor black voters, such as requiring two photo IDs, being forced to pay to vote (poll tax), or literacy tests.

The latter two have been overturned by the courts as discriminatory so Republicans are now trying other strategies such as moving voting locations from black churches to police stations, or reducing the number of polling places so the poor have difficulty getting to remote locations to vote. Democrats in the Senate oppose sessions on the grounds of racism.