The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Selma, Alabama, on February 12, 1965.
Washington CNN  — 

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Martin Luther King Jr.’s family has a message for Democratic lawmakers who refuse to stop their Republican counterparts’ voter suppression efforts yet intend to shower pious praise on the slain civil rights leader’s legacy this holiday weekend: Save it.

King’s son and the members of more than 80 grassroots organizations recently stressed that there ought to be “no celebration without legislation.”

Their statement arrives at a time when racial justice activists are intensifying their calls for President Joe Biden to demand that Senate Democrats alter the chamber’s rules and pass voting rights legislation – before the GOP makes it impossible to have fair elections.

“President Biden and Congress used their political muscle to deliver a vital infrastructure deal,” Martin Luther King III said. “And now we are calling on them to do the same to restore the very voting rights protections my father and countless other civil rights leaders bled to secure.”

‘Give us the ballot’

More than six decades ago, his father spoke about the fundamental importance of the right to vote.

“So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself,” King Jr. said in his “Give Us the Ballot” speech in May 1957. “I cannot make up my mind – it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact – I can only submit to the edict of others.”

Organizers had gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, for the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom – which drew nearly 25,000 supporters – to push lawmakers to uphold the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

King Jr. was the last to speak. But his words to President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Congress were powerful.

President Joe Biden speaks about the constitutional right to vote at the Atlanta University Center Consortium in Georgia.

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

The crowd responded, “Yes.”

King Jr. went on to say, “Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights. Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law. We will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first federal civil rights legislation passed since Reconstruction, authorized the government to take legal measures to prevent citizens from being denied voting rights. But it wouldn’t be until 1965 that Congress would pass the Voting Rights Act.

In March of that year, during a voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, that came to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” White state troopers brutally assaulted 600-some protesters. President Lyndon B. Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act that same month, when the outrage over what happened to protesters in Selma was “still fresh”; Congress passed the bill in August.

Though King Jr. called the law “a great step forward in removing all of the remaining obstacles to the right to vote,” fear and voter intimidation tactics persisted in some jurisdictions.

Today, his family and other civil rights leaders continue a battle 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 for a more equal and just America,” Martin Luther King III said.

He repeated these sentiments last Tuesday, saying to CNN, “We will not be satisfied – any of us, in a number of communities – until we have the John Lewis bill as well as the Freedom to Vote bill passed.”

Bernice King echoed some of her brother’s comments and emphasized the importance of celebration. She underscored in December that one of the best ways to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day – which the Reagan administration initially opposed and hoped to turn into a monument to “colorblindness” – is to legislate like democracy is at stake. Because it is, as scholars have attested.

She said that if voting rights are “still hanging in the balance” by MLK Day, Americans must “speak and act in a way to ensure that this nation lives up to its promise of democracy by putting pressure on our US Senate to bypass the filibuster.”

A stalled voting rights agenda

Lawmakers in at least 19 states passed 34 laws between January 1 and December 7 of last year that make it harder for people, especially Black Americans and other people of color, to vote, per New York University Law School’s Brennan Center for Justice. These laws limit 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 might protect the sanctity of the ballot box.

In the 50-50 US Senate, Republicans have choked off two Democratic-sponsored bills: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. Democrats don’t have the 60 votes necessary to overcome the filibuster and advance most legislation, a situation that’s led progressive Democrats and activists to call for the elimination of a tool that’s long been used to thwart racial equality.

But Democrats don’t have the votes required to end or reform the filibuster, either. Further, they face obstruction within their party. Apparently unmoved by the erosion of US democracy, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema have said, repeatedly, 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 Mother Jones’s Ari Berman recently put it.

(Notably, Manchin and Sinema’s intransigence calls to mind Martin Luther King Jr.’s withering observation that “the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens’ Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the White moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.”)

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said last Thursday that the Senate will take up voting rights legislation on Tuesday. Even so, voting rights advocates have made plain their frustrations with Democratic leaders, many of whom have moved at a glacial pace to protect the rights of the constituents who in 2020 and 2021 delivered wins to the one major party not committed to assaulting multiracial democracy.

This bone-deep exasperation propelled a number of civil rights 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 put his support behind “changing the Senate rules whichever way they need to be changed to prevent a minority of senators from blocking actions on voting rights.”

“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 bit more bluntly.

“We’re way beyond speeches. At this point, I’m looking for a strategy, and I’m looking for a commitment that he (Biden) is going to get this passed,” Brown told CNN last Monday, referring to voting rights legislation. “White voters get priority. Black voters get promises.”

A never-ending assault

Not only do Black voters get empty promises. They also get airy exhortations to vote harder.

In a letter published last Sunday as an ad in the New York Times, Michelle Obama made a plea to Americans, “We’ve got to vote like 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 away their power – and they’ve done it by organizing, by protesting and most importantly, by overcoming the barriers in front of them in order to vote. And now, we’ve got to do the same.”

Obama acknowledged Republican lawmakers’ campaign to limit voting access. But her attention was largely on voter mobilization; in important ways, that focus seemed to ignore racial justice activists’ frustrations with Democratic leaders and their allies for overplaying organizing.

Martin Luther King III, Arndrea King and Marc Morial discuss voting rights.

“I have heard an emphasis on organizing,” Sherrilyn A. Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told the New York Times last year. “We cannot litigate our way out of this, and we cannot organize our way out of this.”

Even a brief look at history illuminates how previous restrictions on the franchise were surmounted not through eagerness but through legislative action. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870 as the final of the three Reconstruction Amendments, prohibits states from taking away the right to vote “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.” And the Voting Rights Act, signed into law in 1965 at the height of the midcentury Black freedom struggle, protects against racial discrimination in voting.

Of course, these hard-won protections are now in jeopardy, thanks to a political party intent on insulating itself from the will of the people and a US Supreme Court whose conservative justices have an appetite for narrowing voting rights.

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

“If he is saying the next seven days is going to be historic and critical, he’s got to fully lean in after he gives the speech, having the kinds of meetings, finding out from Manchin what exactly it’s going to take, and being very direct and forceful – just as forceful as he has been on infrastructure and on some other issues,” Albright told CNN last Tuesday.

He added, “There’s no sense in having 40 years of Senate experience only to tell us that you can’t whip two votes.”