Members of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s family demanded Monday that the Senate scrap the filibuster and pass voting rights legislation as they led a D.C. march on the holiday honoring the civil rights icon.
“To the president and United States senators, you were successful with infrastructure, which is a great thing,” King III told the crowd gathered outside Nationals Park before they headed over the bridge. “But you need to use the same energy to ensure all Americans have an unencumbered right to vote.”
Participants hoisted signs saying “Black votes matter,” “Jews for the freedom to vote” and “Voter suppression is un-American.” Activists said they wanted to highlight how the filibuster had been used throughout history to delay legislation that benefited Black Americans, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the abolition of a poll tax.
As a wintry breeze blew, D.C. resident Lydia Curtis said she marched to honor King and advocate for access to the ballot box, as well as other rights that King fought for.
“I’m 64, and all the issues we’re marching for are the same things,” said Curtis, a substitute teacher in D.C. schools. “I’m marching so my daughter doesn’t have to march 10 years from now.”
After exiting the bridge, the group continued the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Peace Walk on a two-mile route along Martin Luther King Avenue SE.
Monsignor Raymond East, 71, pastor of St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Church in Anacostia, said the brisk temperatures and slushy mess from the previous evening’s snow and freezing rain didn’t discourage him from joining the peace walk, as he has for about the past 10 years. With voting rights legislation pending in Congress, he said, participating this year felt even more pressing.
“I can’t think of another time in my life when we were at a juncture like this — where we have the opportunity for us to do the right thing and act on the side of justice and democracy,” East, a District resident, said as he brought up the rear of the crowd. “When Dr. King was marching, I was a teenager. Now it’s about voting and how important it is for people to be enfranchised.”
Speaking of which, East said, “it’s a good time to talk about D.C. statehood.”
Many participants, including King III, said voting rights include the need to give the District voting representation in Congress.
The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, passed by the House last week, is scheduled for Senate consideration Tuesday. However, Democrats lack the votes to change the rules to avoid a filibuster from Republican opponents. Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) have said they would oppose attempts to change the filibuster, saying it protects the views of the political minority and encourages bipartisan compromise.
If Manchin and Sinema allow the threat of a filibuster to block voting rights legislation, King III said, “history will not remember them kindly.”
The Democratic senators’ opposition also marked a defeat for Biden, who had appealed for congressional support to end the filibuster during a major voting rights speech in Atlanta. Biden said the Senate should eliminate the filibuster to at least debate the legislation, calling new state limits on voting access a “threat to our democracy” and “Jim Crow 2.0.”
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has said he could start debate on the voting rights bill with a simple majority of 51 votes because of rules that govern the way it passed the House. However, unless the Senate changed the filibuster rules, 60 votes would be required to end debate and move to a vote.
The Senate is split 50-50, and voting rights measures have encountered united opposition from Republicans, making approval Tuesday unlikely. However, activists said they want to start debate and require senators to take a stance on the issue.
Nineteen states, spurred by former president Donald Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, have recently changed election laws, including expanding ID requirements and limiting early voting and voting by mail. Democrats and civil rights leaders say those changes will suppress the vote, particularly among minorities, while Republicans say they are needed to prevent voter fraud and restore public faith in the electoral process.
The pending federal legislation would establish national standards for voter registration, early voting, voting by mail and permissible voter IDs. It also would restore federal legal oversight over certain election law changes in states with a history of racial discrimination, according to march organizers.
Kentravius Coleman, 22, traveled from Alexandria, La., to attend the march, saying laws such as one recently passed in Georgia that prohibit providing water and food to voters waiting in line are akin to literacy tests in suppressing the Black vote.
“They’re trying to restrict a right that people fought so hard for, just in a different form,” said Coleman, a senior at Southern University and A&M College.
The Rev. George Gilbert, a D.C. resident and racial-justice activist, said the Black vote is needed to expand access to health care, education and homeownership.
“They opened the schools and allowed us to drink out of the water fountain,” Gilbert said, “but they still don’t want us to have the same access” to voting.
The last name of Lydia Curtis was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.