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“I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting.” – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
An old Senate rule stands in the way of transformative change in the United States. A day meant to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr has morphed into a fight over federal voting rights legislation.
Even as communities honor a man who championed voting rights for Black people, some of the same Republican leaders quoting him today have signed legislation that makes it more difficult for Blacks to access rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
“Dating to the 1800s, it has been used by lawmakers to both advance and thwart Black racial progress — but it is in the thwarting of that progress that it has been used with greatest frequency and success,” according to a report from the Boston Globe.
Yet, for Rev. Dr. William Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign, the conversation around the filibuster needs to shift to how it impacts low-income people of all backgrounds.
“We should’ve never had a separation of the infrastructure bill, Build Back Better and voting rights. We should’ve recognized that the infrastructure of our democracy has to go together with” physical infrastructure, Rev. Dr. Barber told The Black Wall Street Times during a live streamed press conference on Friday.
Voting rights under threat decades after Dr. King’s death
To be sure, in nearly every state, laws have been proposed that would restrict access to the ballot box, and 19 states have passed such laws, according to a December report from the Brennan Center for Justice.
On the federal level, Democrats have sought to overcome the restrictive state laws by proposing two federal voting rights bills—the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.
The Freedom to Vote Act would make election laws the same across the country and greatly expand voting access, while the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
A large part of Dr. King’s legacy included his successful push for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Essentially, it represented the first time the US became a democracy for all. It granted full voting rights to Blacks in the South and required that the Supreme Court or Congress must approve any changes states want to make to their election laws.
Nevertheless, in a 2013 Supreme Court decision, the Justices decided the country was free and fair enough to no longer require the provision. The “Shelby vs. Holder” decision threw out the requirement that states must seek permission before changing their laws. Thus, the country has witnessed dozens of new restrictive laws take shape in states like Texas and Georgia.
Filibuster prevents transformational change in America
Thanks to the filibuster, despite holding the majority, Democrats need at least 10 Republicans to join them in order to pass federal standards and protections to combat the voter suppression taking place in several states. Every Democratic senator and two Independents support altering the filibuster to pass the voting rights legislation—except for two: moderate Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
”Eliminating the 60-vote threshold will simply guarantee that we lose a critical tool that we need to safeguard our Democracy from threats in the years to come,” Sinema previously said in defense of not making any changes to the filibuster. The rule used to require senators hold the floor, but now senators can block legislation without even being in Washington D.C.
Supporters of the archaic rule argue it would prevent Republicans from passing dangerous legislation if they were to retake control of Congress. Yet, those who seek voting protections by any means necessary argue that the current threats against democracy should take priority over a single Senate rule.
“So I would wish they would stop that foolishness,” House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) told CNN anchor Jake Tapper. “Because if we do not protect the vote with everything that we’ve got, we will not have a country to protect going forward.”
Even Dr. King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, led a protest march in Washington on Monday against the failure to pass voting rights protections. He told politicians from both parties he would “not accept empty promises in pursuit of my father’s dream.”
“We must put a face on this issue”
Yet, with no action planned to hear the legislation, Democrats’ hopes of passing the legislation in time for Dr. King’s birthday has failed.
For organizers like Rev. Dr. William Barber of the Poor People’s Campaign, the fight is far from over.
Much like Dr. King’s change in strategy late in his life, Rev. Dr. Barber wants the conversation to focus on how keeping the filibuster in place hurts millions of people in a way that goes beyond limiting access to voting.
“We must put a face on this issue,” Rev. Dr. William Barber told The Black Wall Street Times.
Ultimately, equal access to the ballot box is absolutely essential to a functioning democracy and at the core of the civil rights movement. Yet, Rev. Dr. Barber said “the filibuster has hurt everybody in this country: Black people, women, the labor movement.”
He doesn’t even like to call it a real filibuster. “This is a coward’s filibuster. A real filibuster you had to defend it on the floor.”
While media coverage around the filibuster has focused on what piece of legislation is likely to pass or fail, Rev. Dr. Barber said the focus should be on who keeping the filibuster hurts most.
“This is not a moment, it’s a movement”
Calling out Republicans and moderate Democrats who hold on to the filibuster, Rev. Dr. Barber said “when they do they stand against 32 million Americans who make less than a living wage. When they do they stand against 87 million people who don’t have health care.”
“When they do they stand against 56 million Americans, not [just] Black folks, 56 million Americans who will have their votes undermined by what’s happening in these states,” he added.
Ultimately, Rev. Dr. Barber and many other civil rights leaders believe the filibuster stands in the way of transformative change for the nation’s people, many of whom are poor and low wealth.
“We gotta talk in a different term. And it can’t be just the politicians. It needs to be poor and low wealth people of every race, color, creed impacted. So that if you say you stand for the filibuster, then you’re standing against the millions of people in your state who are poor and low wealth. That is the transformational narrative shift that has to happen.”
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether media attention will continue to hold interest in voting rights legislation after the excitement of Martin Luther King Jr. Day ends. But organizers intent on forcing the US to live up to what it claims to be on paper have no intention of stopping.
The Poor People’s Campaign is organizing a Mass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly & Moral March on Washington and to the Polls on June 18, 2022.
“This is not a moment, it’s a movement. And we intend to use every tool, even massive non violent civil disobedience because our deadline is victory,” Rev. Dr. Barber said.