Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Strom Thurmond and Ben Tillman's legacies surfaced as Elizabeth Warren read Coretta Scott King's words in the Senate

'Pitchfork' Ben returns to the Senate

Posted by Sam Spence on Wed, Feb 8, 2017 at 4:55 PM

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren took the floor of the Senate yesterday to read a letter sent by Coretta Scott King, widow of the slain civil rights leader, she may not have known it, but she was stepping firmly into the middle of South Carolina political history.

Thursday night, Sen. Warren of Massachusetts was raising historical criticism of President Donald Trump's nominee for attorney general, her colleague from Alabama, Sen. Jeff Sessions. The 1986 letter she attempted to recite was from Coretta Scott King to U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, South Carolina's longtime senior senator who chaired the Judiciary Committee which was screening Sessions for a federal judgeship. King stood opposed to Sessions, saying he exploited his job as a federal prosecutor to intimidate black voters in his home state.

King wrote to Thurmond: "Anyone who has 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."

The Judiciary Committee eventually voted down Sessions' appointment (Thurmond supported it), but after reading King's words aloud on the floor, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky ruled Warren out of order for violating a specific rule of decorum in the genteel upper chamber.

click to enlarge Tillman statue on the Statehouse grounds - BILLY HATHORN/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
  • Billy Hathorn/Wikimedia Commons
  • Tillman statue on the Statehouse grounds
That rule, as it turns out, has S.C. fingerprints all over it too.

Way back in the year of our lord 1902, Sen. John McLaurin of S.C. accused his colleague "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman of a "willful, malicious, and deliberate lie." A "fire-breathing racist ... who made war on the people of this state," Tillman wasn't about to let that one go by and started a fight with him right there in the Senate. After that, 'Rule 19' was soon adopted and made it against Senate rules to cast aspersion on another member of the body.

"Democracy in Crisis" columnist Baynard Woods, a Lowcountry native, summed up the overlapping legacies best: "Coretta Scott King originally wrote the letter that McConnell did not want Warren to read to Strom Thurmond, an admirer of Tillman, who ran for president on a platform of Segregation."

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