Fed Up With Inaction Over Voting Rights, Thousands March On Washington

Aug 27, 2021
Originally published on August 28, 2021 9:58 am

More than 50 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and reminded America of the "fierce urgency of now," activists are hoping to re-create the power of that day.

Thousands of activists are expected to converge Saturday in Washington and other cities across the country on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington as part of the national fight over access to the ballot box.

"We know that when people engage, we create nonviolent street heat, action occurs," said King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, who is one of the organizers of the March On for Washington and Voting Rights.

Democrats and voting rights activists want federal legislation to fight back against new rules in Republican-led states that they say are intended to make it harder to vote, particularly for voters of color and young people. But on Capitol Hill, such bills have faced stiff Republican opposition, leaving Democrats so far unable to pass fresh legislation, despite holding control of Washington.

"It also makes it tragic that we're at a place where, as my mom used to say, every generation has to re-earn or earn its freedom. Because theoretically, we should be beyond voting rights," said King. "We should be addressing other issues."

Many Democrats fear that if federal voting bills aren't passed soon, the wave of new Republican laws could make it harder for many Americans to vote in the 2022 midterm elections.

"Old battles have become new again," said Democratic Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama, the sponsor of the voting rights bill named for the late Georgia congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.

"No longer are we allowed or told that we have to count how many bubbles there are in order to register to vote or be able to recite the 67 counties in Alabama in order to vote," Sewell added. "But I want you to know that the modern day barriers to voting are no less pernicious than those literacy tests and those poll taxes."

Where voting bills stand in Congress

Underscoring the sense of urgency Democrats feel, House lawmakers returned to Washington this week for a rare August session to vote on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. It passed on a party-line vote.

The bill would strengthen the Voting Rights Act, which was weakened by a pair of Supreme Court rulings in the last decade. After the House passed the bill named for Lewis, Biden said the legislation would protect a "sacred right."

"The House has acted. The Senate also has to join them to send this important bill to my desk," Biden said. "And the Senate must also move on the [For the] Peoples Act, critical legislation to protect our democracy and the right to vote. We need both of those — those election bills."

Like Biden, supporters of the bills say that both the Lewis bill and the For The People Act are necessary to protect voting rights. The For The People Act would set new national standards making it easier to vote, end partisan gerrymandering and increase transparency in campaign finance.

Democrats don't have enough votes in the evenly divided Senate to overcome opposition from Republicans, who have said these voting bills are overreaching and partisan.

Activists are focused on Senate rules

Republicans can block both bills because of the Senate rule known as the filibuster, which activists and some Democrats want to get rid of. Earlier this week, activists held a demonstration near the White House calling on Biden to more forcefully weigh in on the simmering debate over Senate procedure.

Speakers at the rally spoke in front of bright orange capital letters that spelled out the phrase "Step Up Joe."

Biden needs to "pick a side," said Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter.

"At the end of the day, you can't be on the side of more voting rights and on the side of the filibuster. You can't walk that line," Albright told activists.

It is not Biden's decision whether to change the filibuster. Changing the Senate rules would require all 50 Democrats in the chamber to agree. At least two key moderates, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they are opposed.

There have been increasing calls from Democrats and activists for Biden to do more, arguing that his influence could change the dynamics.

"The only way to get Manchin and Sinema to stop being a problem is for the president of the United States to put every bit of pressure on them, and to call on them and their colleagues publicly to remove the filibuster as an obstacle," said Ben Jealous, the president of People for the American Way.

What's next?

Senators remain engaged in negotiations on their own versions of voting rights legislation and no text has been released.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has indicated that the Senate will move to the issue when lawmakers return to Washington in September.

One key negotiator, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, expressed optimism this week, saying at a roundtable in Wisconsin that she felt "good about the direction we're headed right now" and that she and fellow Democrats remain in negotiations with Manchin.

Jealous and other activists say its key that Biden and Democrats in Washington act with urgency.

"If in September this crisis has [Biden's] full focus, it can be fixed by October, well in time for the 2022 election," said Jealous, who is also a former president of the NAACP. "If the president dallies, if he acts like he's more powerless than he is, then we could see a situation where entire statewide elections are stolen."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Activists plan to rally in many cities this weekend on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. The cause in 1963 was civil rights, including voting rights. The cause in 2021 is the state-by-state battle over voting rules. Yesterday, the Texas House passed a Republican bill to alter those rules in ways that Democrats say will make it harder for many people to vote. The bill now goes to the state Senate. Democrats had walked out to block that legislation, but they could not finally stop it. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: More than 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and reminded America of the fierce urgency of now, activists are hoping to recreate the power of that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING III: We know that when people engage, we create nonviolent street heat. Action occurs.

SUMMERS: That's Martin Luther King III, the Reverend King's eldest son and an organizer of March On For Washington and Voting Rights. Democrats have so far been unable to pass legislation to combat new laws in Republican-led states and say that they are intended to make it harder to vote, particularly for voters of color and young people. Democrats fear that the wave of new Republican laws could make it harder for many Americans to vote in the 2022 midterm elections. This is Congresswoman Terri Sewell of Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERRI SEWELL: Old battles have become new again. No longer are we allowed or or told that we have to count how many bubbles there are in order to register to vote or be able to recite, you know, the 67 counties in Alabama in order to vote. But I want you to know that the modern-day barriers to voting are no less pernicious...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's right. That's right.

SEWELL: ...Than those literacy tests and those poll tax.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's right.

SUMMERS: Underscoring the sense of urgency that Democrats feel, House lawmakers return to Washington for a rare August session. They passed the voting rights legislation named for the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis of Georgia. The bill would strengthen the Voting Rights Act, which was weakened by several Supreme Court rulings. After the House passed the John Lewis bill, President Biden said the legislation would protect a sacred right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The House has acted. The Senate also has to join them to send this important bill to my desk. And the Senate has to move forward on the People's Act (ph), critical legislation to protect our democracy and the right to vote. We need both of those election bills.

SUMMERS: Supporters say that both the Lewis bill and the For The People Act are necessary to protect voting rights. The For The People Act would set new national standards, making it easier to vote. It would end partisan gerrymandering and increase transparency in campaign finance. Democrats don't have enough votes in the evenly divided Senate to overcome opposition from Republicans, who have said these voting bills are overreaching and partisan. Republicans can block both bills because of the Senate rule known as the filibuster, which activists and some Democrats want to get rid of.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting) Hey, hey, hey Joe, the filibuster's got to go. Hey, hey...

SUMMERS: It's not Biden's decision whether to change the filibuster. It would require all 50 Democratic senators to agree on a change to Senate rules. At least two key moderates, senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they do not. Activists, though, say that Biden's influence could change the dynamics. Ben Jealous is the president of People for the American Way.

BEN JEALOUS: The only way to get Manchin and Sinema to stop being a problem is for the president of the United States to put every bit of pressure on them and to call on them and their colleagues publicly to remove the filibuster as an obstacle.

SUMMERS: The activists descending on Washington tomorrow say they want to see Biden's actions match the urgency of his words. Juana Summers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "DYING LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.