The Washington Post

MLK’S words on voting rights resonate all too well today


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.

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 forwardloo­king 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.

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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