I was nineteen years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968. When it happened I was on a sophomore semester abroad in Zadar, Yugoslavia along with a couple of dozen other students from San Jose State College and a few professors.
I remember local people coming up to me and my classmates expressing sympathy for King's death in broken English. The same thing happened a few months later when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated on June 6, 1968.
That year, 1968, was a dark time for the United States. So is 2022. It's depressing that 54 years after King was murdered, our country is still struggling mightily to preserve the voting rights that he and other Black leaders fought for so bravely and vigorously.
Yet here we are, on Martin Luther King day, with the Senate scheduled to begin debating two voting rights bills that have a vanishingly small chance of becoming law.
Senate Democrats plan to press ahead this week with an effort to push new voting rights protections through Congress, in an all but doomed attempt to enact a key piece of President Biden’s agenda that has been undercut by members of his own party.
The Senate on Tuesday will begin to debate legislation that combines two separate bills already passed by the House — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — and folds them into an unrelated measure. The move would allow the Senate to bring the bill directly to the floor, avoiding an initial filibuster.
But that strategy would still allow Republicans to block it from coming to a final vote, and Democrats lack the unanimous support needed in their party to change Senate rules to muscle through the legislation themselves. Still, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, said late last week that Democrats would forge ahead anyway, forcing Republicans to publicly declare their opposition to the bill.
“We all have to be recorded at this moment in time about where are we in protecting the right to vote,” Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “Right now, it doesn’t look like it has the votes to pass, but we’re going to cancel our Martin Luther King Day recess and be there this week because we think it’s so important for the country.”
Well, if it was so important for the country, why did it take a year after Biden was inaugurated for Democrats to get around to seriously pressing for passage of the voting rights bills? Biden has spoken dozens of times about coronavirus and infrastructure legislation. He's spoken exactly twice about voting rights, with one of those speeches last week.
It's easy to understand why Blacks who were key to electing Biden are so disappointed at his lukewarm commitment to voting rights. Politico says in today's Playbook:
For decades, MARTIN LUTHER KING III has heard his father’s words invoked by politicians across the ideological spectrum on behalf of all sorts of positions — even ones antithetical to his beliefs.
“Everyone believes or says they believe in the words and values of Dad, but they try to extract various portions to make it fit their narrative,” MLK III told me on Sunday. “I have to constantly challenge people and say, ‘No, that's not what dad meant; this is what Dad meant.’ I have to push back because every politician, every elected official is going to be out making statements about how ‘I loved Dr. King,’ ‘I support Dr. King,’ and then … they’re voting against voting rights.”
That’s why today, as Americans mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the family of the late civil rights leader is cutting through the usual lofty invocations to make a specific ask: “No celebration without legislation.”
“[CORETTA SCOTT KING], when she was working so many years to make sure that there was a King holiday, her vision of it always was a day of action — a day on, not a day off,” ARNDREA WATERS KING, MLK III’s wife, told me. “There was no way that we, in good conscience, could celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. this year without [progress on] the legislation that was the cornerstone of his legacy.”
Today, Arndrea, MLK III and their 13-year-old daughter will take part in the “D.C. Peace Walk” across Washington’s Frederick Douglass Bridge and hold a press conference with House Speaker NANCY PELOSI and Congressional Black Caucus Chair JOYCE BEATTY (D-Ohio) aimed at ramping up pressure on Democrats to move voting rights legislation forward ahead of a planned Senate vote on Tuesday. That’s an uphill effort: Neither the Freedom to Vote Act nor the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act have anywhere close to 60 votes in the Senate, and Sens. KYRSTEN SINEMA and JOE MANCHIN aren’t budging in their opposition to reforming the filibuster.
Be that as it may, the Kings don’t hold moderates on the Hill solely responsible for the lack of forward movement.
“What we’ve seen with President [JOE] BIDEN is what happens when he puts his full force and power behind an issue like infrastructure. What we want to see is that same power and passion being put behind voting rights,” said Arndrea Waters King. “We hope that [Monday] is a working day for President Biden.”
The Kings know that the short-term outlook doesn’t look good. But they see keeping the faith — and pushing it forward, no matter the odds — as central to maintaining the late Dr. King’s legacy.
“Had he lived, we would be a fundamentally different place,” MLK III said of his father. “[But] if he just arrived today as a 93-year-old man, he would certainly be very frustrated, but not deterred. He understood that you had to look at the long game. He’d certainly be disappointed that we seem to be going around in a circle. … Not only have we been down this road so many times, we are people who will not give up. We're not going to give in, we're not going to give out.”
I admire that determination to never give up.
But the sad truth is that Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans have been working hugely harder to make it more difficult for minorities to vote than Joe Biden and his fellow Democrats have been working to protect voting rights.
The time to start a full court press to pass voting rights legislation was the day after Biden took office. Now the Democratic push to do this is too little and too late, which is infuriating.
Lastly, if you're a progressive like me who supports voting rights, and you're open to reading something really depressing, check out "How Manchin and Sinema Completed a Conservative Vision" in The Atlantic. Ron Brownstein lays out how dismal the future looks for voting rights, ending with:
The one force that was best positioned to resist Roberts’s zealous vision was the ability of Congress and a president to sign new laws reasserting federal voting protections. And now Manchin and Sinema, combined with the impenetrable Senate Republican opposition, have blocked that route—possibly for years. Without federal legislation restoring a baseline set of national voting rights, “it’s hard to imagine the political process delivering any sense of fairness that represents the will of the majority,” Nelson said. “I think the ramifications will endure for generations. It is truly that consequential.”
With crucial help from Manchin and Sinema, Roberts’s triumph now appears complete. And that could trigger a decade of struggle over access to the ballot, unmatched since the days of Jim Crow segregation.