Editor’s Note: Victor Ray is the F. Wendell Miller Associate Professor in the Departments of Sociology and Criminology and African American Studies at the University of Iowa and a Nonresident Fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the White moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote these words in the isolation of a Birmingham jail, where he was imprisoned for defying a court injunction to protest the city’s segregation ordinance. In an open letter, initially scrawled in the margins of a newspaper, Dr. King addressed a group of fellow clergymen who claimed to support the Black freedom movement but criticized nonviolent civil disobedience as a tactic to confront the evils of segregation.
In the letter, King differentiated between just and unjust laws, citing measures that prevented Black Americans from voting as a form of legalized injustice. At the time, Alabama, like many states across the South, was governed by a kind of racial authoritarianism that denied Black people a say in how they were governed. The clergymen’s condemnation of King’s activism belied their stated commitment to racial justice and provided cover for the denial of basic citizenship rights, including the right to vote.
By blocking voting reform today, Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are the White moderates Dr. King warned us about.
On Thursday, Sinema said that while she backs the Democrats’ voting rights laws, she would not support an exception to the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold to pass the legislation. Manchin later followed suit, saying he would not vote to “eliminate or weaken the filibuster.”
By prioritizing an arcane Senate rule over the protection of voting rights, Manchin and Sinema have chosen “order” over justice. The clergymen Dr. King addressed in his letter similarly elevated procedural and strategic complaints over the urgent need for racial equality, even though city officials in Birmingham secured an injunction against civil rights demonstrations and were negotiating with civil rights activists in bad faith. By claiming the movement should continue negotiating with those who were unified in their opposition to racial progress, the clergymen were effectively siding with segregation and suborning Black rights to White whims.
Manchin and Sinema’s procedural complaints about the filibuster are reminiscent of the clergymen Dr. King was confronting. Manchin has expressed his concerns that an exception for voting rights legislation would lead to a slippery slope of rule changes. But he fails to grasp that disenfranchisement creates another slippery slope for those who are denied ballot access – a more dangerous one that allows their other rights to be more easily abridged. Sinema says she is similarly worried that changing the filibuster would erode Americans’ faith in government and increase political division. But what is a greater threat to faith in government than being denied the right to vote?
Together, these senators’ stance conveniently ignores the fact that Republicans and Democrats have changed Senate rules when it serves their political agenda. Mitch McConnell changed the filibuster in 2017, paving the way for three conservative Supreme Court Justices to be confirmed with simple majorities. Democrats also changed the rules in 2013, moving to eliminate the filibuster for most presidential nominations. Given that both parties have shown their willingness to change the Senate rules to reach their goals, Manchin and Sinema’s refusal prioritizes fealty to the filibuster over minority voting rights. Fidelity to anti-democratic procedures that target minority rights is always reprehensible. But this is especially true when the United States faces an assault on voting rights that hasn’t been seen since the end of Reconstruction.
Sen. Reverend Warnock of Georgia, an intellectual and spiritual heir to Dr. King as a pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, has laid out the stakes for months, noting the filibuster protects Republican senators’ minority rights while those same senators block the rights of minority voters. Warnock also noted, in a bipartisan move, senators used a filibuster carve out to raise the debt ceiling in December, but were unwilling to do so for basic democratic rights.