ABOVE: Civil rights campaigner Dr. Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968) with his wife Coretta Scott King (both center, right), at a black voting rights march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery, March 1965. Among the group are civil rights activists Bayard Rustin (1912 – 1987, far left), John Lewis (1940 – 2020, third from left), Reverend Ralph Abernathy (1926 – 1990, fourth from left), Ralph Bunche (1904 – 1971, center) and Hosea Williams (1926 – 2000, right, with hand on child’s shoulder). (Photo by William Lovelace/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
It is impossible to think about the legacy of Dr. King without thinking about his commitment to ensuring African Americans had the unobstructed and unimpeded right to vote.
Every year since 1986, the federal government has honored and celebrated the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the third Monday in January, as that day has been officially set aside as a federal holiday.
Prior to his assassination, Dr. King served as the most prominent voice for African Americans during the Civil Rights Movement, and spoke out on many issues that impacted the African American community, especially the status of voting rights in this country.
He marched, protested, advocated, got arrested, delivered speeches, and met with elected officials, all of which led to the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
So, as the entire nation prepares to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King once again, several members of his family are saying, not so fast.
You heard that correct.
Family members of the iconic civil rights leader are calling on everyone to join them during MLK weekend, as they plan to put pressure on the White House and the U.S. Congress to pass meaningful federal voting rights legislation, versus having the usual celebratory festivities.
Martin Luther King III, who is the oldest son and oldest living child of Dr. King, took to Twitter on December 15th to encourage people to support his family’s efforts.
“No celebration without legislation,” King III tweeted out. “On January 17, join me to honor my father and the #MLKLegacy as we call on Congress and the White House to eliminate the Jim Crow filibuster and pass voting rights to protect millions of Black and Brown voters. “
Of course the January 17th date has major significance, in that it serves as the date the federal holiday in Dr. King’s honor will fall on this year.
In a statement released by King III, he stated that: “President Biden and Congress used their political muscle to deliver a vital infrastructure deal, 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,” and also declared that he “will not accept empty promises in pursuit of my father’s dream for a more equal and just America.”
Of course, King III is referencing the recent $1.2 trillion infrastructure deal that was negotiated through Congress, in his comparison to the efforts needed to pass the voting rights legislation.
King III is not alone in this movement, in that he is also being joined by his wife Arndrea Waters King, their daughter Yolanda Renee King, and more than 80 advocacy groups, many of which have been lobbying for months for the White House and Congress to act.
Dr. Bernice King, daughter of Dr. King and current CEO of the King Center, also declared her decision to stand in solidarity with her brother’s call to action, via a video message posted to social media, where she stated that she wanted the focus to be on “calling our nation’s attention to securing and protecting the most sacred right of our democracy, which is the right to vote.”
The King family and advocacy groups are seeking to put more pressure on the White House and Congress to pass two specific pieces of legislation that have already passed the U.S. House—the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named in honor of the civil rights icon John Lewis, who suffered a vicious attack while fighting for voting rights on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. The other piece of legislation is the Freedom to Vote Act.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is focused on restoring enforcement provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and ensuring that voter suppression is not taking place as it once did in this country through various laws and actions. The details of the Freedom to Vote Act include making Election Day a federal holiday, making it easier to register to vote, ensuring all states have consistent Early Voting opportunities for federal elections, and allowing all voters to request mail-in ballots, among other critical provisions.
Both of these specific pieces of legislation have already passed the House, but continue to be blocked by Senate Republicans, although the Senate Democrats have the power to change the filibuster rules as they have in the past for other pieces of legislation. Currently, Senate rules for most bills require 60 votes in order to advance, and the Senate Republicans are not budging.
The Senate currently has an even split at 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris being the deciding vote, but there are two Senate Democrats—Sen. Joe Manchin (West Virginia) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (Arizona)—who continue to be adamantly against changing the rules of the filibuster which would allow these two pieces of legislation to potentially pass the Senate.
As part of their focus on applying pressure to members of Congress, the King family and supporters plan to hold a rally on Dr. King’s actual birthday (January 15) in Sen. Sinema’s home state of Arizona. They also plan to march across a bridge in Phoenix, where they will commemorate the vicious “Bloody Sunday” march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, which led to eventual passage of the Voting Rights of 1965. Then on January 17th, the family and supporters will march across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington D.C., to once again commemorate the “Bloody Sunday” march. They will then connect with the annual D.C. Peace Walk to commemorate their father’s federal holiday.
Dr. King, who was in Atlanta at the time of the attack on the “Bloody Sunday” marchers, was committed to voting rights and immediately returned to Selma so as to lead another attempt to march across the bridge two days later, on March 9, 1965, but turned the marchers around when state troopers once again blocked the road.
Prior to those incidents, and well before the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Dr. King delivered a consistent message about the importance of ensuring the right to vote for African Americans in this country.
On May 17, 1957, at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom that was held in Washington, D.C., Dr. King spoke last and delivered a soul-stirring message entitled: “Give Us the Ballot,” where he challenged the White House and the members of Congress to ensure voting rights for African Americans. Dr. King also used his message that day to call out both political parties for refusing to step up and do what needed to be done to protect the voting rights of African Americans.
Read this powerful excerpt from Dr. King’s speech that day to better understand where he stood relative to voting rights for African Americans:
But even more, all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters. 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.
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.
Give us the ballot, and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.
Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a “Southern Manifesto” because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice.
Give us the ballot, and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy, and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.
Give us the ballot, and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s decision of May seventeenth, 1954.
In this juncture of our nation’s history, there is an urgent need for dedicated and courageous leadership. If we are to solve the problems ahead and make racial justice a reality, this leadership must be fourfold.
First, there is need for strong, aggressive leadership from the federal government. So far, only the judicial branch of the government has evinced this quality of leadership. If the executive and legislative branches of the government were as concerned about the protection of our citizenship rights as the federal courts have been, then the transition from a segregated to an integrated society would be infinitely smoother. But we so often look to Washington in vain for this concern. In the midst of the tragic breakdown of law and order, the executive branch of the government is all too silent and apathetic. In the midst of the desperate need for civil rights legislation, the legislative branch of the government is all too stagnant and hypocritical.
This dearth of positive leadership from the federal government is not confined to one particular political party. Both political parties have betrayed the cause of justice. The Democrats have betrayed it by capitulating to the prejudices and undemocratic practices of the southern Dixiecrats. The Republicans have betrayed it by capitulating to the blatant hypocrisy of right wing, reactionary northerners. These men so often have a high blood pressure of words and an anemia of deeds.
In the midst of these prevailing conditions, we come to Washington today pleading with the president and members of Congress to provide a strong, moral, and courageous leadership for a situation that cannot permanently be evaded. We come humbly to say to the men in the forefront of our government that the civil rights issue is not an ephemeral, evanescent domestic issue that can be kicked about by reactionary guardians of the status quo; it is rather an eternal moral issue which may well determine the destiny of our nation in the ideological struggle with communism. The hour is late. The clock of destiny is ticking out. We must act now, before it is too late.
After reading that excerpt, one can understand a little more clearly why the King family and their supporters have called on the nation to pause, and challenge the White House and Congress to honor the actual wishes of the man they plan to honor on his federally-recognized holiday, relative to the voting rights of African Americans in this country.