Activists gear up for voting rights march to mark King anniversary


Civil rights activists for a second consecutive year will descend upon the National Mall on Saturday to mark the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, and to dial up pressure on Democrats to make voting rights legislation law.

The march will feature a host of high-profile advocates and groups, including Martin Luther King III, Arndrea Waters King, the Rev. Al Sharpton, March On, the Drum Major Institute, the National Action Network and the SEIU, a labor organization representing service workers.

Voting rights has become a fiercely partisan issue in the wake of former President Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him through voter fraud.

A number of GOP-led states have approved or are in the process of finalizing laws restricting access to the ballot, while Democrats in Congress have been unable to get two pieces of voting rights legislation to President Biden’s desk.

Democrats lack the votes in the Senate to overcome the filibuster, and have been unable to convince centrist senators to back axing the procedural rule that requires a supermajority for legislation, or to create an exception for voting rights.

It’s been a frustration to voting rights groups who say the new state measures will make it harder for Black and brown communities to vote, particularly after last summer’s racial justice movement. Last year’s march centered on the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that rocked the country, as well as encouraging people to vote on Election Day.

“After we marched last year, it wasn’t as if we said we’re gonna come back and definitely march next year,” Waters King, president of the Drum Major Institute and wife of King III, told The Hill. “Looking at what was going on in the country and looking at what was going on nationwide, we felt compelled to do something to help galvanize this issue and make our voices heard.

“It’s one thing to talk about the dream, it’s time for us to continue to push for us to realize the dream.”

Saturday’s march, which takes place 58 years to the day Dr. King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, will feature speeches from a handful of Black Democratic lawmakers — Congressional Black Caucus Chair Joyce Beatty (Ohio) and Reps. Terri Sewell (Ala.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas) and Mondaire Jones (N.Y.).

Other marches are scheduled to take place in Atlanta, Miami, Phoenix and Houston, major cities in states where new voting laws have been passed since the beginning of the year. A number of corresponding virtual marches across the country are also set to happen.

Saturday’s nationwide demonstration comes on the heels of voting rights legislation named after former Rep. John Lewis (D), the late Georgia congressman and civil rights champion, passing the House on Tuesday.

The bill would restore the federal preclearance put in place by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was eroded by the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court decision. The preclearance required states and jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination — largely the Jim Crow South — to gain approval from the Department of Justice before implementing any change to voting procedure.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which outlaws states and other jurisdictions from implementing voting procedures that discriminate against Americans on the basis of race, color or membership in a language minority group, would also be strengthened by the Lewis-named bill.

Voting rights proponents believe that a July decision from the Supreme Court that upheld a pair of Arizona voting restrictions sapped Section 2’s power.

Given Democrats’ majority in the House, passage of H.R. 4 was an expected outcome; the real battle lies in the Senate, where 10 GOP senators will need to vote in favor of the bill for it to overcome the filibuster.

The For the People Act, the other voting rights bill put forth by Democrats to combat the state-level legislation, has already fallen prey to the filibuster, and a similar fate awaits H.R. 4 if the party is unable to come up with a solution.

For an increasing number of liberal lawmakers, the solution looks like filibuster reform, but that’s a route that moderate Democrats and even the White House have balked at.

Many similarities have been drawn between the battle for voting rights during the civil rights movement that culminated in the signing of the Voting Rights Act, and what is happening now.

As such, marching on Saturday will be activists who marched in 1963.

Frank Smith, 78, and Larry Rubin, 79, are two of these people.

Like the late Lewis, both were active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, with Smith being one the group’s founding members.

“It’s disheartening in a sense because we still seem to be fighting those same fights,” Smith told The Hill. “There’s going to be a tough fight, but we’re used to fighting, that’s what we do. John Lewis said that we had to make good trouble, and so we might have to make a little good trouble to get it [passed].”

Rubin noted that the voting restrictions are more “subtle” in their purpose, making them harder to repel.

“In the ’60s, these voter suppression laws were so obviously based on race, courts had no other alternative but to vote against them and support the Voting Rights Act,” Rubin said.

“Now, they, in my opinion, are very clearly class-based, they hurt all poor people. … The folks in that category are disproportionately Black and other people of color.” 

Tags Donald Trump For the People Act Joe Biden John Lewis John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act Joyce Beatty Sheila Jackson Lee Terri Sewell voting rights

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