The nation honored Martin Luther King on Monday, January 17 this year. Too often, we honor King by extolling his courage and his non-violence without respecting what he tried to achieve. But this January may have been the most morally unnerving King Day since the holiday began. It feels more like a time to mourn, rather than celebrate.
Two prominent principles of his legacy were the right to protest and the right to vote. But right now our voting rights are being threatened and the very cornerstone of democracy is under attack. It’s the work of politicians — sometimes who claim to honor this day – who seek political gain by disenfranchising voters. They’re weaponizing racism and using ugly tactics from the past.
The GOP has initiated an unprecedented attack on voting rights. Since losing the last presidential election, they’ve sponsored hundreds of bills that restrict voter access, even as a majority of Americans want to expand voting access and ease pointless restrictions. Especially Americans who have heavy work schedules.
Nevertheless, seeking to consolidate political power by making life harder for the poor, the GOP has enacted measures that limit absentee and early voting, limit the number of voting drop boxes in rural areas, and enact strict voter ID measures – all under the guise of a nonexistent voter fraud problem. The millions of Americans who lack government-issued IDs are likely to be eligible voters from marginalized groups.
Beginning in 1955, Dr. King led boycotts and nonviolent marches against racism, police violence, segregation in public spaces and the harassment of Black voters through laws designed to discourage them. As his fame grew, progressive Americans followed his example and staged nonviolent protests. King achieved his high points when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1963, and shortly after when his calls for human rights consolidated with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. These were enacted seven months after King launched a Southern Christian Leadership campaign to pressure congress to pass such legislation.
There you have it – the two components that were the secret to his greatness. He exhibited the courage to protest, which he used to secure the right to vote. And by his example he showed that civic engagement, fearlessness, and voting were the keys to democracy.
Today’s Democrats have responded to the attacks on voting rights by sponsoring the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act – major pieces of legislation that would protect voting access. But GOP members have filibustered these bills for months.
Given the severity of the threat to democracy, civil rights groups have pushed Democrats to have the courage to do more and end the filibuster. President Biden joined the voices, saying last week: “The threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills, debate them, vote, let the majority prevail. And if that bare minimum is blocked, we have no option but to change the Senate rules, including getting rid of the filibuster for this.”
And the surviving King family have called for “no celebration” this holiday. Instead, they’re fighting for justice. The King family spent the weekend before January 17 leading a march at the statehouse in Phoenix, Arizona. They picked Arizona because of its draconian anti-voting rights laws, including a ban on giving water to voters standing in long lines.
Martin Luther King III, who marched alongside his wife, Arndrea Waters King, and their thirteen year old daughter Yolonda Renee King, said “I can’t imagine what my father and mother [Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King] would say about this. I’m sure they would be rolling over in their graves.”
Arndrea Waters King commented that there is “no better way to observe the King holiday” than by protesting to preserve democracy.
This 2022 King holiday symbolizes our responsibility to sustain his legacy by protecting voting rights. If it takes ending the filibuster, so be it. We, the people, and our leaders must consolidate in support of the For the People Act, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Our fight must last beyond one holiday weekend to ensure we don’t filibuster away democracy.