By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
The nation has been observing the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr for 36 years.
Annually we are reminded of the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of Dr. King’s signature achievements during his career as a leader of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
The passage of the VRA provided protections for African Americans who had been denied the right the vote by the poll tax and other Jim Crow laws until 1965.
But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court voted five-to-four that Section 4 of the VRA was unconstitutional. That section of the VRA provided the formula for determining which states must have any changes to their voting laws pre-approved by the Justice Department’s civil rights division. Virginia was one of the nine states of the old confederacy on that list.
This year, the observance of King Day has taken on an urgent call to action from civil rights activists, led by Martin Luther King III, for the Congress to honor the legacy of King’s father by passing two federal voting bills that would fight voter suppression and restore the enforcement provisions of the Voting Rights Act that were abolished in 2013.
The family of Dr. King has called for “no celebration” on MLK Day if the Democrats fail.
Martin Luther King III, his wife Arndrea Waters King, and their daughter Yolanda Renee King plan to mobilize activists on MLK weekend to push for Biden and Congress to apply urgent efforts to federal voting rights and the Build Back Better (BBB) Bill.
They hope to send the message: “you delivered for bridges, now deliver for voting rights.”
“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,” Martin Luther King III said in a recent statement, adding that they “will not accept empty promises in pursuit of my father’s dream for a more equal and just America.”
The Freedom to Vote Act now in the Congress would make it easier to register to vote, make Election Day a public holiday, ensure states have early voting for federal elections, and allow all voters to request mail-in ballots, among other provisions.
While that bill and the John Lewis Voting Act have passed the House, Senate Republicans have been using the filibuster to block their passage.
For the past two weeks, President Biden and Senate Democratic party leaders have been threatening to kill the filibuster and pass the bills.
But two Democrats are blocking that move.
Republicans say that the two bills are legislative overreach into the state control of elections laws.
At the same time, Republican-led states have passed legislation that weakens criteria for voting, early voting laws, and Initiatives that curtail or shorten early voting in-person and by mail.
These are the byproducts of former President Trump’s “Big Lie” and the refusal to accept the outcome of the 2020 elections.
At the same time, faced with midterms elections, The White House and Congressional Democrats are seeking to repair voting rights and pass the Build Back Better (BBB) Bill in response to the nation’s need for
child care and other needs of working-class families.
Democrats fear two large segments of its voting base—the young and African Americans—will stay home on election day in November, rather than helping the party retain its thin majorities in the House and Senate.
Locally and nationally the response to MLKIII’s proposal not to celebrate without redress in voting rights has been supportive but varied.
Activists, faith leaders, and political leaders told the GUIDE that instead of the traditional tribute to Dr . King with speeches and parades, there should be a “day of action” to illustrate the importance of supporting the VRA and other progressive legislation.
On January 16, at 1:30 p.m. at the New Beech Grove Baptist Church in Newport News, FEEDING 5000 (TM) formed by SCLC leader Andrew Shannon, in partnership with Dominion Power, the NAACP and State SCLC will stage one of the biggest traditional events commemorating MLK’s birthday.
Shannon, who says he speaks regularly with the King family, says he agrees the holiday should be a call for action.
“We celebrate Dr. King’s legacy year-round, not just in January,” said Shannon. “So this year the family believes it is critically important due to the VRA.”
“Dr. King, sacrificed his life for voting rights,” said Shannon. “Remember Bloody Sunday, the march from Selma to Montgomery he led. Not just for Black people, but many whites have benefitted from it.
So I think the U.S. Congress should work to get it passed.”
Virginia U.S. 3rd District U.S. Congressman Robert Scott said that the Senate should pass the VRA bills in response to the growing threat by Republicans, especially in red states which are passing laws to weaken the voting rights of Black, Brown, and poor people.
Scott said many Democrats are fearful; abolishing the filibuster to pursue their short-term aims realizing that if Republicans should take control of the Senate, they will do the same to pursue less progressive measures.
Scott and other Democrats were observing the first anniversary of the Trump-inspired attack of the U.S. Capitol January 6, 2021, endangering Scott and other lawmakers.
Trump’s supporters sought to violently stop the Congressional certification of the state electoral vote which declared Joe Biden as President.
Scott said the day after the insurrection, two-thirds of the Republicans in the House voted to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
He said state Republican lawmakers are electing and appointing people who could follow Trump’s orders to decertify results of state elections in the future, if they cry voter fraud.
Republicans in Michigan, he said, sought to decertify thousands of votes from majority-Black precincts in Detroit which would have overturned the election in that state. But the state officials eventually refused.
“On King Day, we should organize and register people to vote and remind people that the vote is key to our democracy which is under threat,” said Scott.
Rev. Dr. Geoffrey Guns, the Senior Pastor of Norfolk’s Second Calvary Baptist Church, does not agree with the King’s family stand.
“This is nothing,” he said. “This has been going on for a while and this is the best they can do at the time?” said Gunns. Not celebrating the King Holiday is just what a lot of white folks would love nothing better.”
“The Democrats have been too apologetic and not leading as Republicans pursue the idea of radically deconstructing our democracy,” said Gunns. “The Democrats like to tell the people what the Republicans are doing.”
Before COVID-19 forced most locales to cancel many of the MLK birthday events, Norfolk held a well-attended one at the Historic Attucks Theater.
Usually, Councilman Paul Riddick delivered the most stinging and impassioned message, related to economic and social disparities which countered MLK’s dream.
Riddick said that the national and local Black political leadership, “has been too passive on pursuing the renewal of the Voting Rights Act and the legislation (BBB) to help poor families.”
“We need to push back,” he said, “and we need to be vocal about what we have done and should be doing to protect our voting rights access to economic equality. In Norfolk alone, for the last four years, we have regressed 15 years economically. We not only need to be aggressive about protecting our votes but people should be using them to improve their lives.”