Why Celebrating MLK Day Without Legislation Desecrate Civil Rights Leader’s Legacy

The family of Martin Luther King Jr. has a message for Democratic lawmakers who refuse to stop their Republican counterparts’ voter-suppression efforts but intend to heap piously on the slain civil rights leader’s legacy this holiday weekend: Save it.

Her statement comes at a time when racial justice activists are ramping up their calls for President Joe Biden to demand that Senate Democrats change the chamber’s rules and pass a voting rights bill — before the GOP makes fair elections impossible.

“President Biden and Congress have used their political leverage to secure an important infrastructure deal,” Martin Luther King III said. “And now we are urging them to do the same to restore the very voting rights protections that my father and countless other civil rights activists bled to secure.”

“Give us the ballot”

More than six decades ago, his father spoke about the fundamental importance of voting rights.

“Unless I firmly and irrevocably own the right to vote, I do not own myself,” King Jr. said in his “Give us the ballot‘ Speech, May 1957. ‘I can’t decide – it’s decided for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen and obey the laws I helped make—I can only submit to the making of others.
Organizers gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC for the Prayer pilgrimage for freedom — which attracted nearly 25,000 supporters — to urge lawmakers to uphold the 1954 Decision Brown v. Board of Education.
King Jr was the one last to speak. But his words to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Congress were powerful.

“The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. And that is why our most urgent request to the President of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote,” said King Jr. said.

The crowd replied, “Yes.”

King Jr. continued, “Give us the ballot and we won’t have to worry about our fundamental rights with the federal government anymore. Give us the ballot and we will no longer ask the federal government to pass an anti-lynching bill. We will use our voice to write the law in the law books of the South and put an end to the insidious acts of the hooded criminals.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first federal civil rights law since Reconstruction, authorized the government to take legal action to prevent citizens from being denied the right to vote. But it wasn’t until 1965 that Congress would pass the Voting Rights Act.

In March of that year, white state troopers brutally attacked about 600 protesters during a voter rights march in Selma, Alabama, which became known as “Bloody Sunday.” President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act the same month as outrage over what happened to protesters in Selma “still fresh“; Congress passed the law in August.
Although King Jr. called the law “a major step forward in removing all remaining obstacles to the right to vote”, fear and intimidation tactics were used against voters persisted in some jurisdictions.

Today, his family and other civil rights activists are continuing a fight many thought American voters had won.

“Like those who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, we will not accept empty promises in pursuit of my father’s dream of a more equal and just America,” said Martin Luther King III.

He echoed those sentiments last Tuesday, telling CNN, “We will not be satisfied — none of us in a number of communities — until we pass the John Lewis Act and the Freedom of Choice Act.”
Bernice King echoed some of her brother’s comments, stressing the importance of celebrating. She underscored in December that one of the best ways to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day — the The Reagan administration was initially opposed and hoped to turn into a monument to “color blindness” – is to legislate as if democracy is at stake. Because it is, as scholars have attested.

She said that if voting rights are “still in limbo” by MLK Day, Americans must “speak and act to keep this nation on its promise of democracy by pressuring our U.S. Senate to filibuster.” bypass .”

A stalled voting rights agenda

Legislatures in at least 19 states passed 34 laws between January 1 and December 7 last year that make it harder for people to especially black Americans and other people of color, decide by vote, per New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice. These laws restrict absentee ballots and impose additional ID requirements, among other things.

And yet, despite such obvious political machinations, Democratic lawmakers have failed to pass legislation that could protect the sanctity of the ballot box.

In the 50-50 US Senate, Republicans stalled two Democrat-backed bills: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. Democrats do not have the 60 votes needed to overcome the filibuster and move most legislation forward, a situation that has prompted progressive Democrats and activists to call for the scrapping of a long-held tool thwart racial equality.
But even Democrats don’t have the votes needed to end or reform the filibuster. They also face obstacles within their party. Seemingly unperturbed by the erosion of US democracy, West Virginia Senators Joe Manchin and Arizona Senators Kyrsten Sinema have repeatedly stated that they have no interest in changing the filibuster.
Their stubbornness allows “41 GOP senators, representing just 21% of the country, to block any effort to protect voting rights.” as Ari Berman of Mother Jones put it recently.

(Notably, Manchin and Sinema’s intransigence is reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr.’s damning observation that “the Negro’s great stumbling block on the road to liberty is not the Council of White Citizens or Ku Klux Klanners, but the moderate White , which is devoted more to ‘order’ than to justice.”)

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said last Thursday that the Senate would move on the Voting Rights Act on Tuesday. Still, suffrage advocates have voiced their frustration with Democratic leaders, many of whom have moved at an icy pace to protect the rights of voters who, in 2020 and 2021, brought victories to the one major party that chose not to attack committed to multiracial democracy.
That bone-deep desperation prompted a number of racial justice groups — including the New Georgia Project, the Black Voters Matter Action Fund and the Asian American Advocacy Fund — to boycott Biden’s speech last Tuesday in Atlanta, where the president left his support of the “change.” of Senate rules, however they must be amended to prevent a minority of senators from blocking voting rights measures.”

“We don’t need another speech. What we need is a plan,” Cliff Albright, the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, told reporters last Monday.

LaTosha Brown, the co-founder of Black Voters Matter, put it a little more bluntly.

“We are way beyond speeches. At this point, I’m looking for a strategy, and I’m looking for a commitment that he (Biden) will see this through,” Brown told CNN last Monday, referring to the vote-rights legislation. “White voters come first. Black voters get promises.”

A never-ending attack

Black voters aren’t just being made empty promises. You also get airy admonitions to vote harder.

In a letter published as an ad in the New York Times last Sunday, Michelle Obama appealed to Americans: “We must vote as if the future of our democracy depends on it.”

She added, “Generations of Americans have persevered through poll taxes, literacy tests, and laws designed to strip them of their power — and they’ve done so by organizing, protesting, and most importantly, breaking down the barriers in front of them in turn.” have to vote. And now we must do the same.”

Obama acknowledged the Republican legislature’s campaign to restrict voting access. But their attention was largely on voter mobilization; Importantly, this focus seemed to ignore racial justice activists’ frustrations with Democratic leaders and their allies for over-organizing.

Martin Luther King III, Arndrea King and Marc Morial discuss voting rights.
“I’ve heard the emphasis is on organization,” said Sherrilyn A. Ifill, president and legal counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told the New York Times last year. “We can’t carve our way out here through litigation, and we can’t organize here.”

Even a quick look at history shows how previous limitations on the franchise were overcome not by zeal but by important legislation. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870 as the last of the three Reconstruction Amendments, prohibits states from stripping the right to vote “on the basis of race, color, or past servitude.” And the Voting Rights Act, enacted in 1965 at the height of the black freedom struggle, protects against racial discrimination in voting.

Of course, those hard-won safeguards are now in jeopardy, thanks to a political party intent on sealing itself off from the will of the people and a US Supreme Court whose conservative judges are ruling would like to limit voting rights.

This grim political landscape has prompted concerned Americans to put more pressure on Biden, Senate Democrats and their allies to be more aggressive in their efforts to protect the ballot box.

“When he says the next seven days are going to be historic and critical, after his speech he has to really lean in, do the kind of meetings, find out from Manchin what exactly is required, and be very direct and energetic — just as energetic , like he did on infrastructure and some other issues,” Albright told CNN last Tuesday.

He added, “There’s no point having 40 years of Senate experience just to tell us you can’t win two votes.”

Comments are closed.