‘Good Trouble’: Black caucus embraces civil disobedience
Civil disobedience was an integral part of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and is playing a pivotal role again as Black lawmakers express discontent over inaction on voting rights.
In the past two weeks, Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) have been arrested by Capitol Police after staging separate voting rights protests at the Hart Senate Office Building.
Both were heard chanting for the end of the Senate filibuster, a procedural rule that requires 60 votes to move major legislation and has helped stymy Democrats on voting rights and police reform, before being taken into custody.
Johnson told The Hill that Beatty “started something” with her demonstration two weeks ago.
“Good trouble inspires more good trouble,” Johnson said, evoking the famous phrase of the late Georgia congressman and voting rights champion John Lewis (D).
“It was good trouble walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge,” the congressman added, referencing what is now known as Bloody Sunday.
On that March day in 1965, Lewis, just 25 years old, attempted to lead hundreds of activists across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., during a 55-mile march to Montgomery as part of a voting rights campaign.
Lewis and other activists were viciously beaten back across the bridge by white state troopers; Lewis’s skull was fractured in the brutality. Images of the cruelty were broadcast on national television.
It became a watershed moment in U.S. history and led to progressive change in Washington. Five months after the attack by police, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law.
Johnson said the July arrest was the first time he had been arrested in his life but that he’d participate in civil disobedience again if it meant progress on voting rights.
Beatty told The Hill on Wednesday that their actions “got the attention of the nation about how serious” the CBC is about voting rights.
“Getting arrested like Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis and Martin Luther King — I don’t take great pride in it. It was a necessary evil. You see something, you say something, you do something,” she said.
Pushing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, H.R. 4, through this session of Congress is one of the caucus’s “highest priorities,” the congresswoman added.
The final framework of H.R. 4 is still a work in progress and the bill has yet to be introduced, but the legislation would instate a new formula for the federal preclearance that is outlined in Sections 4 and 5 of the VRA.
The oversight 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.
Since the Supreme Court’s landmark 2013 decision that ruled the original formula to be outdated and thus unconstitutional, voting rights laws across the country have frequently been altered and tightened, including the significant wave of new restrictive voting procedures that have been proposed and passed by Republican-led state legislatures this year.
Beatty’s and Johnson’s actions stem from mounting frustration over the filibuster, which has thrown the passage of both the For the People Act and H.R. 4 into jeopardy.
The filibuster has been watered down in recent years so that it can no longer be used to block any nominees, including those to the Supreme Court. But it is still routinely used to block legislation.
Democrats have debated ending the legislative filibuster or reforming it. House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) has proposed an exemption that would let voting rights legislation bypass the filibuster via a simple majority vote.
But right now, they do not have the 51 votes necessary to do so.
Vice President Harris would give them the tie-breaking vote in the 50-50 Senate, but they first must win over all 50 Democratic senators. Moderate Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are against changing or eliminating the filibuster.
Democrats used budget reconciliation rules to win approval of a COVID-19 relief measure earlier this year and plan to use the same rules to get a $3.5 trillion spending package to President Biden’s desk.
CBC members have expressed growing frustration with the standoff over the filibuster within their party. Some of that frustration has been directed toward Biden, who has balked at supporting the complete dissolution of the filibuster.
In March, the president — who served in the Senate for more than three decades — expressed interest in a return to a “talking filibuster,” which would require senators to talk on the Senate floor to keep a filibuster going.
Johnson said that there is concern among members that there hasn’t been more public movement from the White House regarding filibuster reform.
He also suggested that more actions like the protests that led to his arrest and Beatty’s can make a difference.
“Civil disobedience worked in 1965 and will work in 2021,” Johnson said.