As the U.S. approaches the federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., modern-day civil rights advocates are facing the reality that despite years of increasing public focus on racial injustice, they appear likely to fall short of their goal of improving minorities’ access to the vote.
Last week King’s family requested that celebrations of civil rights leader’s legacy be suspended this year, unless Congress passes legislation to expand voting rights in America.
Democrats have championed legislation that would give Washington a stronger say in how federal elections are administered in each of the 50 U.S. states. While the federal government does not control state-level elections, new federal requirements could affect them, because they are often conducted in tandem. Among other provisions, the two Democratic-sponsored bills, the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, aim to undo laws passed by Republican-led states that limit methods and opportunities to cast ballots.
Democrats and many civil rights activists say the state laws will disadvantage minority voters, and they accuse Republicans of thinly veiled voter suppression. Republicans reject the charge, insisting their goal is to protect the integrity of elections and prevent voter fraud.
Stalled in the U.S. Senate for months, hopes for passing the Freedom to Vote Act appeared to be extinguished last week. Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, both Democrats, said that even though they support reforming election laws, they will not vote to change Senate rules in order to pass those reforms with Democrat-only backing.
A change in Senate rules would be necessary because no Republicans support the voting law bill. Under the chamber’s rules, Republicans can block most legislation even if a Democratic majority supports it.
On Friday, during a livestreamed interview with The Washington Post, Martin Luther King III bitterly criticized Sinema’s and Manchin’s position.
“History is not going to be judging … them in the way that perhaps they would want to be remembered. History is looking [them] dead in the face to say, ‘When it was time to make sure the democracy was preserved, what did you do?’” he said.
How did we get here?
Voting rights did not return to the top of the Democratic priority list overnight. The journey of civil rights issues to the forefront of public discourse in the U.S. has been years in the making.
The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement after multiple highly publicized police killings of unarmed Black men between 2014 and 2019 galvanized many Americans behind the idea that the U.S. still had a long way to go to reach racial equality.
At the same time, the release of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, an effort to retell the history of the U.S. with more of a focus on the role of slavery, highlighted centuries-old racial inequalities in the U.S. So did a movement to tear down many monuments to the Confederacy, which fought to preserve slavery during the U.S. Civil War of 1861-65.
Pushback, sometimes violent
The increasing focus on racial justice in the U.S. has not come without a virulent reaction. White supremacist groups have become more active and vocal across the country. In 2017, a group of white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia. During related protests, one white supremacist activist drove a car into a group of counter-protesters, killing a young woman.
It was also difficult for many to disentangle the presidency of Donald Trump from the battle over racial inequality. Trump came to political power by pushing the falsehood that President Barack Obama, the first Black president, was not an American by birth, and that his presidency was therefore illegitimate. (By law, the president must be a natural-born U.S. citizen.)
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Trump also called for the violent suppression of the Black Lives Matter movement, at one point sending in federal agents to break up a peaceful but boisterous protest near the White House. He also reportedly demeaned African and Black-led countries, asserting that the U.S. should not accept immigrants from them.
At the same time, a movement arose on the political right to restrict the teaching of racially sensitive topics in public schools. The themes protesters object to were short-handed as “critical race theory,” even though that subject is a relatively obscure area of legal scholarship that is never taught in elementary or high schools.
The focus on voting rights has always been a major element of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, but it became especially acute in 2021, after minority voters played a major role in electing Joe Biden as president in the 2020 election and helped give Democrats control of the House and Senate.
Across the country, minority voters turned out in record numbers. This was especially true in states like Georgia, a Republican stronghold, where a campaign to register new minority voters and get them to the polls resulted in the state voting for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1992, and sent two Democrats to the Senate for the first time in a generation, giving the party control of that chamber.
After the election, the defeated President Trump insisted the election had been “rigged,” a falsehood that he has continued to repeat, and which many of his supporters, including many state legislators, have echoed.
In the months that followed, many Republican-controlled states passed restrictive new voting legislation that will make it more difficult for minority groups, including the non-English speakers and individuals with disabilities, to vote in future elections than it was in 2020, when measures to ease voting during the coronavirus pandemic helped drive record turnout.
In some cases, states did more than roll back pandemic-related voting accommodations. Some created new provisions allowing state legislatures to intervene in the certification of vote counts, established new rules allowing poll watchers to challenge individual voters, and put volunteer poll workers in danger of criminal prosecution for providing what, in years past, would have been routine voter assistance.
A common reaction
According to Carol Anderson, a historian and professor of African American Studies at Emory University, there is a long history in the United States of laws being changed after Black Americans exercise their freedom in a way that challenges power structures.
“What is happening is what always happens in America,” Anderson, the author of the New York Times bestselling White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide, told VOA. “When we look at the 2020 election, where you had black folk coming out and voting, willing to stand in line for 11 hours to vote to fight for this democracy, the result of that was that Trump got removed from the White House and the Senate flipped. The response to that was a white rage policy of a series of voter suppression laws, and a series of laws that were about how to handle certification of elections.”
Not so, according to Republicans, who say they are fighting against federal overreach and accuse Democrats of attempting to tip the electoral scales in their favor.
“This effort by liberal Democrats to take power away from states to run elections is not about enfranchising voters – it's about shifting power to the advantage of the liberal Democratic agenda,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina recently tweeted.
Amid the acrimony and on the eve of what seems sure to be a more somber Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, Anderson said she is sure the fight for voting rights — and civil rights more broadly — will continue.
“We have an incredibly engaged civil society that is fighting for this democracy,” she said. “We have folks who are litigating against these voter suppression laws. We have folks who are registering folks to vote jumping through all of the hurdles. We have folks who are providing citizenship training school. … It is that civil society that has been just absolutely instrumental in fighting for American democracy.”