Persist This

How MLK’s Ghost Will Haunt Mitch McConnell

Mitch McConnell tried to silence Coretta Scott King—and Elizabeth Warren. Instead, all he managed to do was to add fuel to the resistance.


Mark Wilson/Getty

This week, we crashed through yet another floor in the rapidly pancaking edifice that is Donald Trump’s America, when Jefferson Sessions, a man deemed too racist to be seated as a federal judge during the Reagan era, was sworn in as the 84th attorney general of the United States. And while he is far from the only steep price the country will have to pay for elevating a vengeful reality show crank and theoretical billionaire to our nation’s highest office, it’s worth pausing to note the particular horror of his ascension, and the breadth of the damage he could do.

There are few instances when American history offers us two clear sides of a moral line. On matters of racial equality and civil rights, the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., his aides and collaborators like Ralph Abernathy, Bayard Rustin, and John Lewis, and his ever-dignified wife Coretta Scott King stood on one side of that very bright line, with the forces of racial revanchism standing firmly on the other.

This week, Mitch McConnell roused the Kingian ghosts in a way he and his party may come to regret. As Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren rose to read the words written by Mrs. King in 1986, in searing opposition to Sessions’s elevation to a federal judgeship, McConnell silenced her, invoking the upper chamber’s Rule 19 to accuse Warren of “impugn[ing] the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama.”

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted,” added McConnell.

And indeed, Senator Warren had persisted, just as Mrs. King had persisted in 1986 in defending her husband’s legacy 18 years after he was gone. In her letter, she absolutely impugned the motives and conduct of a man who, in her words, “used the power of his office as United States attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should not be elevated to our courts.”

“Mr. Sessions,” Mrs. King told the Senate Judiciary Committee all those years ago, “has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.” That included prosecuting three Alabama civil rights workers for the crime of trying to help black people register and vote (PDF), referring to the NAACP, Operation PUSH, and the National Council of Churches as “un-American organizations teaching anti-American values,” and accusing civil rights groups like the NAACP of seeking to “force civil rights down the throats of people.” He reportedly called a white civil rights lawyer a “disgrace to his race,” and is said to have referred to a black lawyer in his office as “boy,” warning him: “You ought to be careful as to what you say to white folks.” He enthusiastically supported the Shelby decision that struck out the heart of the Voting Rights Act and is a champion of voter ID laws, which curtail the voting rights of people of color and the young.

His supporters could argue that he has changed and matured over the years, the way a young Klan member named Robert Byrd grew to repent of his past racism and became a respected elder Democratic Senator. Except that Jefferson Sessions has never repented. Instead, he has simply denied that the numerous tales of his racist statements are true. As The Nation’s Ari Berman has written: Sessions has spent his whole career opposing voting rights. It’s hard to imagine he won’t continue that pursuit as attorney general.

Sessions’s bitter legacy goes beyond his decades of attacks on the right of the descendants of the once enslaved to vote.

It is largely through Sessions’s influence and some of his top aides that Trump reportedly came to craft his executive order barring travel to the U.S. by people from seven Muslim-majority countries, as well as U.S. green card holders with connections to those countries; a ban which was recently rebuffed by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and which is likely headed to the Supreme Court. The travel ban, which Trump and his top advisers, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani have explicitly called a “Muslim ban,” happens to target the seven countries from which 82 percent of the Muslim refugees who came to the U.S. in 2016 came.

Sessions has long opposed not just unlawful migration, but also legal immigration, which in 2015 he called “the primary source of low-wage immigration into the United States.” He has opposed every attempt at immigration reform during his two decades in the Senate, most recently with the help of his former aide, Stephen Miller, an ideologue who literally wrote the GOP’s talking points on how to defeat the Gang of Eight immigration reform plan in 2013.

In significant ways, the presidency of Donald J. Trump is the shadow presidency of Jefferson Sessions.

He bequeathed Miller, a protégé of white supremacist Richard Spencer while at Duke University, to Trump; along with many of the populist and nativist campaign themes that Sessions himself has pushed for decades. He then became the first Senator to endorse the bombastic celebrity businessman for president, while Miller became Trump’s principal speechwriter. It was Miller, apparently, who gave us Trump’s “Midnight in America” speech at the Republican National Convention last year and the “American Carnage” address on Inauguration Day.

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Miller joins Steve Bannon, who sits at the fulcrum of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, apocalyptic, white Christian nationalist cell operating inside the White House. There’s also Michael Anton, recently unmasked by The Weekly Standard’s Michael Warren as the former right-wing blogger who wrote under the name “Publius Decius Mus,” and who in a Trump-supporting essay during the campaign warned darkly that “[t]he ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.” His addition to the team led Jamelle Bouie to declare in a recent essay that ”government by white nationalism is upon us.”

Beyond his own racial and immigration views, our new attorney general is an opponent of the Black Lives Matter movement, a climate change denier, and an opponent of scaling back the war on drugs, including the legalization of marijuana. It seems unlikely that he will pursue the enforcement of the consent decrees reached with various cities under the Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch tenures at Justice, let alone seek any more. And it seems likely that under his watch, many more men, women and children of color will wind up behind bars.

In short, we are in for a dark time at the DOJ, and our country’s most vulnerable are in for a long four years. Young activists who style themselves the heirs to John Lewis, will soon find out what Lewis’s turbulent and valiant youth—already full of so much state violence—would have been like without Robert Kennedy.

Yet, for Mitch McConnell and his party, this moment in history may also be decisive, because for the resistance, the time for depression has past, and the spark has been lit for a new civil rights movement; one that is led largely (though not solely) by women, who now bear Mrs. King’s mantle, and Senator Warren’s defiance.

Even Bernice King—Martin and Coretta’s surviving daughter and a culturally conservative minister from Georgia—was ignited by McConnell’s silencing of her mother’s words. She joined the legions who tweeted #LetLizSpeak and #ShePersisted, issuing a statement saying: “The profound voice and leadership of Coretta Scott King, my mother, a global peace advocate and a human rights activist, still resonates today. Her letter regarding Senator Jeff Sessions, written 30 years ago, yet still prolific, should propel us all toward a commitment to eradicating all systemic injustices.” She added: “I firmly believe that my mother would consider it an affront to women and humanity that Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced and prevented from reading her letter, while male members of the Senate were permitted to read that same letter. These actions on our Senate floor reflect the continual blight of a patriarchal order in our nation and world.”

Grandiose protestations of the GOP being the “Party of Lincoln” and attempts to revive the long-dry bones of past associations between the Democratic Party and the conservative, southern rejectionists of the Red Shirts, Redeemers and the Klan have long ceased to have any meaning. Parties change, for better and for worse. And the Democrats grew over many decades to become the party of civil rights, immigrant rights and women’s liberty; of the first black president and the first woman presidential nominee (who made double history by winning the popular vote); and of Senator Warren’s carriage of Mrs. King’s letter into the heart of white, male, Republican power. And the Republican Party, which grew out of the noble cause of ending slavery, is now the party of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller; of “Publius Decius Mus,” Jefferson Sessions and Trump.

We’ll see whose persistence wins out.