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.
Even the events of January 6th, 2021, haven’t been enough to convince Republicans of the need for voting and electoral reforms. Commentators disagree if the attack on the Capitol was an insurrection, an attempted coup, an uprising or a riot. But experts increasingly warn the threat to our multiracial democracy has only increased since the attack on the Capitol.
Following January 6th, many congressional Republicans have refused to break with former President Donald Trump and call out his lies about election fraud for fear of retaliation. Fearful of electoral repercussions and with no legislative agenda going into the 2022 midterms, Republicans seem preoccupied instead on securing their power by gaining an unfair advantage through voter restriction laws.
Even Republican Rep. Liz Cheney, who has spoken out against Trump’s “big lie,” has shied away from criticizing voter restriction laws Republican-led state legislatures have passed, casting it instead as a state’s rights approach to voting that empowers the very anti-democratic forces she claims to oppose.
In 2021, more than 440 bills that include provisions that restrict voting access were introduced in 49 states, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Many of these voting procedure changes came about after a decades-long campaign to push back against voting rights. There was the Southern Strategy, which used neutral-sounding “colorblind” rhetoric and policy to turn back civil rights movement gains and target the Voting Rights Act. Then in 2013, the Supreme Court overturned a provision of the Voting Rights Act that required states to receive clearance from the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington before making changes to voting procedures. This cleared the way for the current wave of voter suppression.
Republican voters have also taken an anti-democratic turn. Only 28% of Republican voters – stoked by a conservative media infrastructure rife with misinformation – believe Biden’s 2020 win was legitimate.
Republicans’ assault on democratic norms hasn’t stopped at state level attempts to undermine voting rights; they have also attacked local voting administration. Conspiracy theories about election irregularities and in-person voter fraud inspired a crop of conservative activists to run for election administration roles at the state and local levels. It didn’t help that some officials who were committed to fair elections were subject to a number of violent threats after Trump repeatedly spread lies about election fraud. Understandably, in the face of these threats, some officials have chosen to step down rather than put themselves and their families at further risk.
The voting rights bills Manchin and Sinema are blocking would help to alleviate some of the most egregious problems with the country’s current anti-Democratic push. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would update provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act weakened by the Supreme Court, once again requiring preclearance for potentially-discriminatory election changes. The Freedom to Vote Act would expand voting access by, among other things, establishing minimum periods of early voting and making Election Day a national holiday. These reforms are non-partisan, and it appears Republican opposition is based on the recognition that democracy itself hurts the party’s electoral chances.
America’s multiracial democracy is a recent, and fragile invention. Dr. King was, after all, protesting for the protection of rights supposedly guaranteed by the 15th Amendment but denied for nearly a century through anti-democratic schemes that barred Black Americans from voting. The passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act finally guaranteed Black voting rights and led to dramatic increases in both voting and substantive representation. But conservatives on the Supreme Court have substantially undermined that law and now voting rights are once again under attack by Republicans in a bid to maintain and secure power.
Manchin and Sinema’s claim they want a bipartisan solution to voting rights is, at best, a refusal to face political reality. At worst, their so-called moderate position of defending the filibuster gives cover to an anti-democratic extremism reminiscent of many of the worst moments in American history. To paraphrase Dr. King, by choosing order over justice, they remain the nation’s great stumbling block in the stride toward a fully inclusive democracy.
“Voting Rights: A Continued Fight for the Ballot” is hosted by CITIZEN by CNN on Wednesday, January 19 at 2pm ET. Join John King, Abby Phillip and Manu Raju and RSVP at CNN.com/citizen.