The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Martin Luther King Jr.’s words on voting rights resonate all too well today

The rising full moon passes behind the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the Washington Monument in December 2020 in D.C. (J. David Ake/AP)
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Martin Luther King Jr. Day has become an informal benchmark against which to measure the country’s progress toward fulfilling the promise of equality and justice for all. In his May 1957 “Give Us the Ballot” speech in D.C., King called the right to vote one of “the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.”

Using MLK Day and this speech as standards, the United States is poised to step backward. The retreat is evident in the critically needed voting rights legislation stalled in Congress and Republicans’ nationwide effort to make it harder for people unlike themselves to vote or to have their votes counted.

Not only have anti-voting-rights schemes reached dangerous proportions on the eve of MLK Day, so, too, has radical right-wing rhetoric.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), voicing opposition to the pending Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, has resorted to McCarthyist smears, claiming that “Marxists in Washington, D.C.” and “a leftist elite class” with a “radical progressive agenda” are behind the measures.

Surely, Rubio knows better. The threat to democracy comes from within his own ranks. Last year, mostly Republican bills in 19 states were enacted into 34 laws attacking voting rights.

Hundreds more restrictive voting bills were sponsored last year by Republicans in state legislatures. Their bottom-line aim? Disenfranchise people they fear might vote against them, as happened in the last presidential election. And no one wants obstruction more than former president Donald Trump and his supporters, some of whom tried to overturn a free and fair election on Jan. 6, 2021.

Stopping Trump and his ilk should be simple. It’s not. Erecting impregnable shields against laws designed to suppress votes and subvert elections is as hard today as it was more than 50 years ago, when full citizenship and voting rights were adopted in 1965. And for reasons that King cited in his 1957 address.

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That speech was delivered three years after Brown v. Board of Education. And it took place years before the sit-ins, freedom rides, church bombings, the March on Washington, that bloody day in Selma and passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the early and mid-1960s.

But in May 1957, King put his finger on problems that strikingly mirror challenges of today.

King called for “a president and members of Congress to provide a strong, moral and courageous leadership for a situation that cannot be permanently evaded.” It wasn’t the opposition’s threat that stymied action, but rather, “the dearth of positive leadership” at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. So, too, now. Concerted executive leadership is playing catch-up.

The cause of justice was not a top Washington agenda item in 1957. Neither, it might be said, was voting rights reform in 2021. Oh, yes, plenty of voting rights lip service was directed toward the back of the bus. But Build Back Better social spending occupied the front seat all year.

King drilled down on the leadership issue.

He cited a need for supporters “thoroughly committed to the ideal of racial justice,” not a “quasi-liberalism which is based on the principle of looking sympathetically at all sides … a liberalism so bent on seeing on all sides, that it fails to become committed to either side … a liberalism which is neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm.” Sort of resembles today’s liberals who enjoy running with the progressive rabbits, while baying like centrist hounds, leaving voting rights somewhere in the dust.

King lamented the cowardice of White Southern moderates. “It is unfortunate that at this time, the leadership of the White South stems from the closed-minded reactionaries,” King said. “These persons gain prominence and power by the dissemination of false ideas and by deliberately appealing to the deepest hate responses within the human mind.” Hmmm, “Donald Trump”?

King said he believed there were more forward-looking people “than appears on the surface.” But he added, “These persons are silent today because of fear of social, political and economic reprisals." "God grant,” King preached, “that the White moderates … will rise up and courageously, without fear, and take up the leadership in this tense period of transition.”

In King’s day, his call to the courageous was answered by several Republicans, most notably one George Romney, governor of Michigan. They formed a bond that crossed the political divide. Romney strongly supported the 1964 civil rights bill, pushed to include an anti-discrimination plank in the GOP platform, and refused to support Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, who opposed the civil rights legislation.

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Today’s Romney — George’s son Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) — is glued to the hip of the chief Senate voting rights obstructionist, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky). So, too, it seems otherwise balanced and forward-looking GOP senators such as Rob Portman (Ohio), James Lankford (Okla.), Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Susan Collins (Maine). How Republican Tim Scott, the first Black senator from South Carolina, can throw in his lot with anti-voting-rights forces is beyond charitable understanding.

More than ever, conscience and courage are needed now.

The hour is late. The undemocratic practices of Trump and his allies are prevailing.

I’m struck by King’s 1957 message during that time of darkness.

“Stand up for justice.” “Keep moving.” “It will cause suffering and sacrifice. It might even cause physical death for some.” He was assassinated in 1968 at age 39. Black radio host and activist Joe Madison has passed the 68th day of his hunger strike. In our household, more than voting rights are at stake. Joe Madison is family — the cousin of my wife, Gwen. His suffering is ours.

“Keep moving amid every obstacle .... amid every mountain of opposition,” King preached.

That is what the struggle and progress toward freedom are up against on this MLK Day. But now, as then: “Keep moving.”

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