Martin Luther King’s son and Democrats hit out at senators blocking voting rights bill: ‘History will not remember them kindly’

The Senate is poised to take up Democratic-backed voting rights legislation this week, but two Democrats are standing in the way of rule changes that would allow it to pass

Andrew Feinberg
Washington, DC
Tuesday 18 January 2022 01:02
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'History will not remember them kindly': Son of Martin Luther King hits out at Senators holding up voting rights bill
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Top democrats and the eldest son of Martin Luther King marked the national holiday that would have celebrated his father’s 93rd birthday by railing against the de facto Senate supermajority requirement.

They called out two Democrats for enabling Republican attacks on voting rights by refusing to change Senate rules so Democrats can enact voting rights legislation.

Speaking at Washington’s Union Station, civil rights activist Martin Luther King III warned that American democracy “stands on the brink of serious trouble” as long as voting rights legislation backed by Democrats remains bogged down in the upper chamber.

The 28th Annual Martin Luther King Jr Grande Parade on Monday in Houston, Texas

The Senate is set to return to Washington on Tuesday and begin debate on the Freedom to Vote: John R Lewis Act, which would reauthorise the 1965 Voting Rights Act and strengthen ballot access by promoting postal balloting and early voting periods, and would pre-empt laws passed by GOP state legislatures to restrict voting in response to former president Donald Trump’s “big lie” which posits that the 2020 election was stolen from him by way of fraud in largely non-white cities.

Mr King warned that such laws “are being passed with knife-like precision” and are meant to “cut black and brown voters out of the process” in ways once prohibited by the 1965 Voting Rights Act his father pushed for, and he admonished senators for “letting them get away with it” using the modern incarnation of the upper chamber’s filibuster rules.

The popular image of the filibuster – immortalised in Frank Capra’s classic film Mr Smith Goes to Washington – is of a senator needing to hold the floor and speak continuously to block action on a bill. That was the technique segregationist senators used for decades to prevent enactment of civil rights and voting rights legislation, but a pair of rule changes in 1970 and 1975 meant to allow the Senate to continue functioning while a bill is being filibustered now allow any senator to block legislation by merely sending an email.

Of the senate’s 50 Democratic members, the vast majority have expressed support for changing the rules once more, either to carve out an exception for civil rights and voting rights laws, or to mandate a return to the old-style filibuster because it would place the onus on Republicans to block bills rather than force Democrats to peel off GOP votes to stop them.

But two Democrats – Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema and Arizona’s Joe Manchin – have outright refused to support any change that would weaken the de facto supermajority requirement.

Martin Luther King III, accompanied by his daughter Yolanda Reneee King and his wife Andrea Waters King speaks during a news conference in Washington on Monday

Recalling how the filibuster was central in what was a century-long campaign to prevent black Americans from voting, Mr King said there is no difference between Ms Sinema’s and Mr Manchin’s refusal to support its elimination and the GOP senators who use it to block any attempt to roll back voting restrictions targeted at non-white Americans.

“Every one of them has taken an immoral position against voting rights … just last month, they both supported an exception to the filibuster to raise the debt ceiling but they draw the line at protecting the rights of millions of voters? History will not remember them kindly,” he said, comparing them unfavourably to the “white moderate” his father called “the biggest stumbling block” to civil rights in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

“He was surrounded by people who told him to wait until a more convenient time and to use more agreeable methods,” he said. “Fifty-nine years later, it’s the same old song and dance from Senators Manchin and Sinema.”

A short time later, House speaker Nancy Pelosi took to the same podium to call for an end to the filibuster and urged senators to “weigh the equities” when the senate votes on proposed rule changes this week.

“Nothing less is at stake than our democracy,” she said.

“This is about suppressing the vote. It's about nullifying the elections, it's about just doing so many things to be obstacles to participation,” she said of the GOP push to restrict voting at Mr Trump’s behest.

“If you really truly want to honour Dr King, don't dishonour him by using a congressional custom as an excuse for protecting our democracy,” she said.

Ms Pelosi’s call to honour the late Dr King by passing voting rights legislation was also echoed by Ohio Representative and Congressional Black Caucus chairwoman Joyce Beatty, who said Democrats “must draw the line in the sand of justice for any member not standing with us on voting rights”.

“We will not yield our efforts to enshrine voting rights legislation into law, nor will we allow a filibuster to filibuster away our democracy and our voting rights,” she said, calling senators who’ve blocked the Democratic-backed voting bill and opposed rule changes “obstructionist to America's promise of freedom and justice”.

“We must stand against them,” she said.

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