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‘Tomorrow is today’: MLK’s words ring true on voting rights

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“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Riverside Church, New York City, April 4, 1967

From his 1957 “Give Us the Ballot” speech to his 1965 editorial, “Let My People Vote,” to his 1966 call for a “March on the Ballot Boxes” in Kingstree, S.C., to his 1968 “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, Dr. King had a lot to say about the too-often-denied fundamental American right to vote.

So I guess it’s a little odd that — writing to recognize the 56th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act — I choose to highlight a seminal speech that Dr. King gave at Riverside Church in New York roughly 18 months after the law’s passage, in opposition to the war in Vietnam.

But take a closer look — that wasn’t all he was talking about. He was talking about the fierce urgency of now, the moral necessity of taking action, and how, when lives are on the line, there is such a thing as being too late. “The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs,” he said. “We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on.”

So, before we go any further, let’s agree on one thing: Lives are on the line in America today.

Right now, while the coronavirus’s Delta variant is lengthening a devastating pandemic and deepening the economic crisis, health care is becoming less affordable and less accessible to many working families, and Republican governors are demonstrating that they don’t really care about the lives of their citizens — especially when they could face primary elections next year.

Meanwhile, these same governors and their GOP-controlled legislatures may be limiting your right to vote with new laws and new ballot restrictions ensuring that you not only won’t vote, but can’t vote.

Of course, this isn’t new. In fact, it’s pretty clear that whenever there’s a surge in turnout among those who never really were welcome to participate — Black voters, especially — politicians demonstrate a greater effort to keep us away from polling places. Remember Isaac Newton’s Third Law? “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Just as in physics, we see that every voting surge is followed by this greater urge in politics.

Likewise, it’s clear to me that, especially in light of the recent restrictions, those American who stand to be most impacted by elections are also the ones who are most suffocated from participating in elections.

Nowhere is this more apparent, perhaps, than in the U.S. Senate, where a deeply partisan minority jealously guards its own political relevance and power by subverting the will of the people and undermining our most basic rights as Americans. What weapon do they use? The filibuster.

While Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his GOP colleagues were the latest to use this American institution for un-American purposes, when they blocked the For the People Act in June, they weren’t the first. The truth is, reactionist politicians have used the filibuster to undermine civil rights, voting rights and democracy itself for more than a century — blocking everything from anti-lynching legislation to measures to eliminate the poll tax.

Why should we allow institutions that were meant to protect the government of, by and for the people to be used against us? The answer is: We shouldn’t.

Still, rather than eliminating the filibuster outright, I agree with my leader, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), that we should pass new rules that would carve out an exception for legislation that deals with our most cherished rights, as outlined in the Constitution. In other words, let’s allow legislation most fundamental to our democracy be decided in the most democratic way possible: a straight majority vote. It seems simple enough to me.

And why should we act now? Because, just as Dr. King warned on April 4, 1967, the clock is ticking. People are dying. “There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect,” King said in his Riverside Church speech.

Dr. King’s words ring as true today as they did then. The call to urgency isn’t hollow when we remember that, one year after speaking those words, Dr. King’s clock ran out. One year to the day, he was shot and killed in Memphis. 

We cannot afford apathy or complacency. We cannot afford to rely on hindsight, because tomorrow is today and, looking back 56 years from now, it will be too late.

Antjuan Seawright is a Democratic political strategist, founder and CEO of Blueprint Strategy LLC, a CBS News political contributor, and a senior visiting fellow at Third Way. Follow him on Twitter @antjuansea.

Tags Civil rights movement Filibuster Martin Luther King Jr. Mitch McConnell voting restrictions Voting Rights Act

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