Nationwide Marches Aim To Push Senate Democrats Forward On Voting Rights

ATLANTA ― Fifty-eight years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington called for the passage of federal civil and voting rights bills, a round of massive nationwide protests will take place Saturday in an effort to push Senate Democrats forward on two major bills to protect and expand the right to vote.

In Atlanta, marchers will parade from King’s former church to Centennial Park downtown. Marches are also planned in Miami, Houston, Phoenix and other cities in states where Republican legislatures have passed new laws to restrict voting rights this year. The centerpiece demonstration will take place in Washington, D.C., where King delivered his famous “I Have A Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963.

The March on Washington helped pave the way for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Now, with the U.S. Senate set to return from its August recess after Labor Day, organizers are hoping these marches will create the pressure necessary to push Democrats’ priority voting rights bills ― the For The People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act ― across the finish line this fall.

“We go all around the world talking about democracy, and right here at home we are suppressing democracy,” Martin Luther King III, the elder son of the late civil rights leader, told HuffPost ahead of the marches. “That’s why we are demonstrating.”

The younger King helped organize the March On For Voting Rights alongside Rev. Al Sharpton and Alejandro Chavez, the grandson of late labor leader Cesar Chavez. A litany of major voting rights groups, labor unions and progressive organizations have signed on to support and participate in the marches.

“We’re going to be focusing like a laser on our senators to get them to understand that the people of America want voting rights expanded, not restricted,” he said.

Other voting rights groups will hold the Make Good Trouble Rally in Washington on Saturday. Organizations advocating for legislation that would make Washington, D.C., the 51st state are also staging rallies and partnering with voting rights groups this weekend to promote their cause, which would fully enfranchise the 700,000 residents of the nation’s capital.

Republicans in 18 states have passed at least 30 new laws that implement new voting restrictions this year, arguing that they’re necessary to prevent the sort of widespread election fraud former President Donald Trump falsely claimed jeopardized the integrity of the 2020 election he lost.

The laws will place new restrictions on voting that affect millions of Americans, but especially Black voters, Latinxs, Native Americans, people with disabilities, young voters and poor people — segments of the population that already face difficulties accessing the ballot box, and that benefited most from the pandemic-inspired changes many states made last year in an effort to expand access and make elections safer. 

House Democrats this week passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bill meant to reauthorize key elements of the original Voting Rights Act that were invalidated by the Supreme Court in 2013. And in March, the House approved the For The People Act, a broader bill that includes voting rights protections as well as a ban on partisan gerrymandering and an overhaul of campaign finance laws.

Both bills face hurdles in the Senate, where Democratic leaders have been unable to persuade Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) to either support the For The People Act in its current form or to approve changes to filibuster rules that would allow simple majority passage of it or the John Lewis bill, which is named after the Georgia congressman and civil rights activist who died last year. 

Manchin is working with other Democrats on compromise legislation, and has expressed some openness to a filibuster workaround for voting rights only, Sharpton told reporters earlier this month. But time is running out to counteract new GOP laws in time for 2022 midterm elections. The marches and rallies are meant to demonstrate popular support for the bills and generate the same urgency in Democratic senators — and the White House — that activists and state lawmakers have felt for months.

“The Voting Rights Act has been wiped out in court by judges who think racism is a thing of the past,” said Andi Pringle, the political director for March On, a national voting rights group that’s helping to organize this weekend’s rallies. “We need Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, which protects voters, and the For The People Act, which protects elections. If we don’t do this, we’ll be pushed back into Jim Crow and cease to be a true democracy. This is a five-alarm fire moment.”

The rallies in Washington are expected to draw the largest crowds and the most attention. Protests in the states will be smaller — especially in areas such as Georgia, where organizers said they’re taking precautions to protect against the rapid spread of the coronavirus delta variant. But they are just as important, organizers said, as activists are trying to draw more awareness to the states where Republicans passed their most sweeping voting restriction packages earlier this year. 

The Atlanta march will have historic links to Martin Luther King Jr. Crowds will march from the King Center near his resting place past the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church he attended and his birthplace on Auburn Avenue. They’ll continue to make their way beneath a large mural honoring Lewis, who helped King organize the March on Washington before representing Atlanta in Congress for more than 30 years.

The elder King’s daughter Bernice King will headline a Saturday afternoon rally at Centennial Park that will also feature relatives of other late civil rights leaders. Corrie and Courtney Cockrell ― nieces of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, who was assassinated just months before the March on Washington in 1963 ― are traveling from Mississippi to join the protest. 

“It’s unfortunate that we’re still here, but it’s necessary that we’re still here,” Courtney Cockrell told HuffPost. “It’s our honor to be able to do our part as the next generation, and to try to bring a light to the injustices that are still going on.”

Georgia became the epicenter of the voting rights battle earlier this year. Republican legislators in March responded to a trio of Democratic victories in the presidential election and two Senate contests by passing an election reform bill that targeted early and mail-in balloting, placed new limits on practices meant to boost turnout among Black and Latinx voters, and handed the legislature more control over local election boards and officials. 

Voting groups have sued to block the law, but a recent Supreme Court decision that gutted another key section of the Voting Rights Act of 1964 has made it harder to challenge the legality of such bills on grounds that they are discriminatory.

“Dr. King would probably be discouraged that we’re back at the place where we started,” Pringle said. “But I also think he would see the opportunity in this moment. He thought in ’63 that it was possible to make massive change with appeals to the moral conscience of Americans and by putting public pressure on our leaders. And if he could do it then, then absolutely we can do it in 2021.”

The upcoming march in Georgia will give organizers a platform to engage voters ahead of the 3,000 local, municipal and county elections that will take place across the state this year, with the new Republican law in full force.

“We’ll bring awareness to these upcoming laws that are drastically changing the accessibility and fairness of the ballot,” said Maci Hall, the Georgia state director for March On. “We need to make sure that our voters are prepared, that they’re educated, and that they know the kind of things they are going to come across when they do reach the ballot box this year.”

A similar march will take place in Houston on Saturday, less than 48 hours after Texas state House Republicans approved a package of voting restrictions that will ban drive-thru voting and place limits on other voting methods that election officials in Harris County, where Houston is located, used to boost turnout in 2020. 

Texas House Democrats fled the state in July to break quorum and delay the passage of the bill, which will especially threaten ballot access for the state’s large Black and Latinx populations, as well as people with disabilities and elderly voters.

Federal legislation “is the only thing that will save states like Texas, Georgia and Florida, and other states that are controlled by Republican legislatures and governors, from these voter suppression bills,” said Texas state Rep. Ron Reynolds, who was among the lawmakers who left the state in July. “That is the only hope you have.”

Voting rights are the primary focus of this weekend’s marches, but organizers are also hoping to link that battle to other progressive priorities, including a $15 minimum wage and social spending and poverty reduction programs Democrats have included in the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package they’re aiming to pass next month.

Rev. William J. Barber II, whose Poor People’s Campaign has staged voting rights and economic justice rallies across the country since mid-July, met this week with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to rally congressional support for both voting legislation and the infrastructure package. He also urged House Democrats to “hold the line” on their priorities in a way that matches the aggression moderate members have shown on both issues.

The original March on Washington included calls for jobs and economic reforms, Barber noted, while the current round of rallies shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the party can protect voting rights and fund programs that pull millions of those voters out of poverty.

“We must remember that Martin Luther King never led a one-issue march,” he said. “It was also about jobs and justice. We need all of it, not some of it.”

Barber will be among the speakers at the Make Good Trouble Rally on Saturday. This week, he traveled to West Virginia for a caravan rally meant to ramp up pressure on Manchin, who has been loath to support the $15 minimum wage proposal.

“We’re gonna come again and again and again to these states because these senators don’t really listen to people from outside of their states,” Barber said. “In the streets, it’s our job to help create that urgency. But if that urgency isn’t there, help us God.”

Saturday’s rallies will mark the biggest single-day mobilization the country has seen since Republicans began their latest assault on voting rights earlier this year. But it won’t be the end, activists said.

After the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson told activists that he had exhausted the political capital it would take to force through a voting rights bill too. In response, Martin Luther King Jr. vowed to generate enough pressure to make it impossible not to pass the voting protections his movement had demanded.

Six decades later, his son and other activists said they won’t stop until they’ve left Manchin and other leading Democrats ― including President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) ― no choice but to move forward.

“When you see demonstrations like what we’re doing, it awakens those in power,” Martin Luther King III said. “Every time the foundation is shaken, elected officials historically have responded.”

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