Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. (Image courtesy of National Archives Catalog).

Breanna Reeves | Black Voice News and IE Voice

Commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday may look a little different this year as the King family calls for “no celebration without legislation” in order to demand the passage of voting rights legislation that has been stalled in the U.S. Senate.

Spearheaded by Martin Luther King III, Arndrea Waters King and Yolanda Renee King, the call to “deliver for voting rights” began in Arizona on January 15 on Dr. King’s actual birthday. The event invites faith leaders, civil rights leaders, voting rights activists and legislators to come together to restore voting rights. The demonstrations will end with a Washington D.C. Peace Walk on Monday, January 17th.

Martin Luther King III, with support of King family members Arndrea Waters King and Yolanda Renee King, called for “no celebration without legislation” this MLK Day in a push for the U.S. Senate to break the filibuster and pass voting rights legislation. USEPA photo by Eric Vance

The passage of one key piece of voting legislation, the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act is at the center of the demands. Previously two bills, The Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA), were combined into one single bill on January 12 in order to bypass an initial filibuster which has prevented the bills from being debated. The House passed the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act on January 13.

The new bill maintains a lot of the same voting expansions from the initial Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis VRAA and includes some added provisions such as ​​guaranteeing the right to vote “free from any burden on the time, place or manner of voting.”

The Freedom to Vote Act, initially written as a single bill, intended to “expand Americans’ access to the ballot box and reduce the influence of big money in politics, and for other purposes.” The legislation would expand opportunities to vote by offering mandatory early voting across all 50 states, create a national standard for vote-by-mail for all eligible voters and make Election Day a legal public holiday, among other provisions. The Freedom to Vote Act is cosponsored by Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA), Alex Padilla (D-CA), Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and others.

A call to action 

Advocates have called for the restoration and implementation of voting rights since the 2016 presidential election after states experienced increases in voter suppression, stricter voting identification requirements and obstacles to voting-by-mail. Dr. Regina Patton Stell, president of the Riverside Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), insisted that the public must honor the family’s request as a way of remembering what Dr. King stood for.

In 2021 alone, 19  state legislatures undermined the political power of Blacks and other minorities by enacting 33 anti-voter laws, making it harder for communities of color to vote (Source: Jennifer EppsAddison@jeppsaddison mobile.twitter.com).

“At this point where we are now — January 17 2022, we don’t need to celebrate a holiday that no longer stands for what this man believed, advocated and died for,” Dr.  Stell explained. “It’s an assault on our right to vote. With all of the work that was done to be given the right to vote and now we are literally on the brink of losing it, of losing the right to vote.”

Dr. Stell called on all Americans, regardless of race or political party, to contact their senators and demand they end the filibuster, which has restricted the passage of voting legislation and voting reforms. The House initially passed the Freedom to Vote Act in September 2021 and the John Lewis VRAA in August 2021. In October, all 50 Senate Republicans moved to block debate on the bill when it came up for a vote. 

The John Lewis VRAA, as it was initially proposed, would amend the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and restore other sections of the legislation that were previously struck down. Specifically, this bill would restrict legal changes to voting rules that discriminate on the basis of race and restore the power of the federal government to oversee state voting laws to prevent discrimination. 

Pushing for passage of voter legislation in the U.S. Senate, Dr. Regina Patton Steel, president of the Riverside NAACP, said we don’t need to celebrate a holiday that no longer stands for what Martin Luther King Jr., advocated and died for (source: riverside-ca.aauw.net).

As the holiday weekend kicks off, many are waiting to see what will happen with the passage of the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act in the Senate. Voting rights advocates like Dr. Stell are on the move, not content to just sit and wait around, rather she is focused on pushing for the passage of the voting legislation, increasing Covid-19 vaccination rates in the Black community, and expanding voter registration and civic engagement.

“We do not have a choice to sit down and to (ruminate on) what happened. We have to march forward, strategize, get coalitions, get people to the polls and run for public offices,” said Dr. Stell. “It’s not over. It’s not over (and) it’s never going to be over. So, I’m fired up. I’m ready to go.”

Breanna Reeves

Breanna Reeves is a reporter in Riverside, California, and uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, Breanna reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at breanna@voicemediaventures.com or via twitter @_breereeves.