Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Fight for Voting Rights
by: Cole Breen
On Monday, America marked the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This would have been his 93rd birthday had he lived to see the day. Dr. King was a famed Baptist minister, civil-rights activist, and Nobel Prize recipient. He led the American civil-rights movement as its de-facto spokesperson from December 1955 until April 4, 1968, when he was assassinated by James Earl Ray at the Lorraine Motel. In roughly 13 years, Dr. King manufactured change on a scale not once seen before in the 246 years that this country has existed. Dr. King's guiding principles of nonviolence were instrumental in ending the legal segregation of Black Americans in the United States. In addition, he cast out much of the Jim Crow laws that served only to oppress based on the color of one's skin.
Inspired by the teachings of his Christian faith and nonviolent leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. utilized powerful rhetoric, protests, grassroots organizing, and civil disobedience to accomplish what were considered insurmountable goals. In his tenure as a civil - rights leader, he led the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a 381 day campaign meant to force the integration of the city's bus lines. As a result of their tireless efforts and King's leadership, the Supreme Court ruled segregation in public transportation was unconstitutional. Dr. King also motivated over a quarter million people to join him in the March on Washington where he delivered the now famous I have a dream speech. Because of the efforts of Dr. King and his supporters, Congress eventually passed the Civl Rights Act which outlawed legal discrimination against Blacks as well as other minorities. The year after, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which eliminated the remnants of disenfranchisement laws that prevented Black people from voting in many locations across the south. There is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of American history's most influential figures. He is one of the only non-presidents to have a memorial dedicated to him on the National Mall. In my lifetime, I have yet to see anybody inspire change on the scale that Dr. King did.
In recent years people have turned to Dr. King to learn from his example as a leader. While we haven't quite reached his "dream," we've come a long way as a nation. In recent years, politicians have often utilized Dr. King as a figurehead in backwards appeals that represent nothing but lip-service. People often fail to understand what exactly he stood for. The nation celebrates Dr. King's birthday in the midst of a fiery debate surrounding voting rights. Just two days ago, both the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act were both blocked in the senate following an attempt to change filibuster rules. Democrats were opposed by moderates, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Sen. Joe Manchin who were against the proposed rule changes. While there are still options to table the acts to a vote, this is quite a significant blow to Democrats who are hoping to pass legislation that could shore up their position ahead of midterms. At this point, polling numbers suggest that Republicans have the advantage in a hypothetical midterm election. This would be a death blow to an already weakened Biden agenda. Democrats need to emphasize party unity if they hope to strengthen their power in Washington.
So why are these acts significant? The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, titularly named for Senator John Lewis, wants to turn back a 2013 Supreme Court decision that struck down critical parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The original act required states with a history of voting rights discrimination to get permission from the Department of Justice to make any changes to their voting laws. Moreover, the act would also introduce a new formula to evaluate which states must get these permissions. Under this act every state would have to seek permission when making voting alterations such as relocating polling places and imposing strict voter ID requirements.
As for the Freedom to Vote Act, NPR states that it would, "make Election Day a national holiday, aimed at making easier for all voters to get to the polls that day, allow states to have early voting for at least two weeks prior to Election Day, including nights and weekends, allow voting by mail with no excuses needed, and voters could put their ballots in drop boxes, require that states make voting more accessible for people with disabilities, require that states that require IDs for voting would have to broaden the types of identification acceptable. States would also have to offer same-day voting registration and online registration and also make it easier to register at places like departments of motor vehicles."
In addition to these proposed changes, partisan gerrymandering would also be made illegal. It's easy to see why some issues in these acts are a token of division amongst the Democrats and Republicans. Large portions of these bills call for wide-sweeping changes that would permanently modify the way we vote in this country. However, there are some common sense ideas here that should easily be the subject of bipartisan approval. Democracy at its core is about accessibility. In a country that sets the example for the rest of the world, voting should be a straightforward, relatively uncomplicated process. But it's not, that much is clear. It seems that in many of the states the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act hopes to target, voting is getting that much harder for minorities and already significantly disenfranchised groups.
Martin Luther King Jr. fought his entire life to protect voting rights for Black Americans. How can we claim to celebrate the birth of a civil-rights pioneer if at the same time we are continually making it harder for the same people Dr. King fought for to vote? Dr. King's son Martin Luther King III put it best when he said, "Today, remember the true nature of my father's work. He fought for easy access to the ballot box & civil-rights protections. He isn't a figurehead to be used to uplift backward agendas. We won't celebrate until Congress does its job and legislates."
We have failed as a nation to fully enact Dr. King's "dream." While I would argue that certain compromises must be made on both sides for these Acts to pass efficiently, general congressional gridlock has prevented much of this important legislation from passing. There now exists a disconnect between people and government. The special partisan interests that have governed congress for the past few years have become ingrown and corrupted. Our elected leaders should be working in the spirit of Dr. King to make democracy that much more convenient and hospitable, especially to those who have been historically disenfranchised. In Dr. King's Give Us the Ballot speech he made it clear that, "So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself . . . 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.'' In his impassioned speech he laid out a sentiment that I'm sure is shared by most. Critical to the idea of an American identity is our democratic system. Without the right to vote you lose the ability to a privilege that many fought and died for. There is something fundamentally wrong with the way this country is being run if even the most critical rights are being put up for debate. We need to move beyond our divisions and commit ourselves to ensuring voting rights for all of America.
"It is not possible to be in favor of justice for some people and not be in favor of justice for all people." - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.