Dr. King’s Voting Rights Legacy Under Attack

Marc H. Morial


To Be Equal #2
January 11, 2012
Dr. King’s Voting Rights Legacy Under Attack

Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

“No nation can long continue to flourish or to find its way to a better society while it allows any one of its citizens…to be denied the right to participate in the most fundamental of all privileges of democracy – the right to vote.”  

- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s Voting Rights Legacy Under Attack

On Monday, January 16th, America will celebrate what would have been the 83rd birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The day will be marked from coast-to-coast with parades, speeches, and pilgrimages to the new King Memorial on the National Mall. But in the midst of this outpouring of praise, there is a sinister movement afoot to undo one of Dr. King’s hardest fought victories – the removal of discriminatory barriers to voting and the passage of the Voting Rights Act signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.  

In Dr. King’s day, billy clubs, cattle prods and guns kept African Americans away from the polls.  Today, new voter restriction laws on the books or in the works in at least 34 states could deny the right to vote to more than 5 million Americans this year.  These laws include new photo ID requirements, elimination of early voting, bans on voting by out-of-state college students, and rollbacks of voting rights for ex-felons who have paid their debts to society.  Florida has even eliminated voting on the Sunday before Election Day which has traditionally been a day when African American churches organized “souls to the polls” drives for their congregations.

The mostly conservative proponents of these new laws claim they are meant to prevent widespread fraud – the casting of ballots by people who are not legally eligible to vote.   But both the Bush and Obama Justice Departments have looked and not found significant voter fraud in American elections.  So let’s be clear – the real reason behind this spate of new laws is to suppress the votes of people likely to support progressive candidates and issues – African Americans, Latinos, young people, the elderly and people with disabilities.  This is unconscionable.  It is un-American.  And it dishonors the sacrifices of generations of Americans who have fought and died to extend the right to vote to every citizen.

Fortunately, a growing number of Americans are fighting back.  On December 10th, the National Urban League joined the NAACP and a coalition of civil rights groups at a “Stand for Freedom” march and rally at the United Nations to protest this blatant attack on voting rights.  Attorney General Eric Holder has also expressed concern about the legality of some of these new laws.  Recently, the Justice Department struck down a voter ID law in South Carolina and Holder promises to continue to monitor these attempts and stop them when they violate the law.  But beating back these efforts will require citizen vigilance and action.

In a recent speech at the LBJ Library and Museum in Austin, Texas, Holder urged Americans to “Speak out. Raise awareness about what’s at stake. Call on our political parties to resist the temptation to suppress certain votes in the hope of attaining electoral success and… urge policymakers at every level to reevaluate our election systems - and to reform them in ways that encourage, not limit, participation.”

We agree.  We must not let the hard-won voting rights secured by Dr. King, John Lewis, LBJ and so many others slip away.


Related Articles:

The Miami Herald
The Question Dr. King Would Ask
By Marc H. Morial and Robert Velasco II

In the final years of his life — in fact, in his final days — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was working to secure not just basic civil rights, but economic opportunity for all Americans.

He and other foot soldiers of the civil rights movement had taken the fight for equality from segregated buses in the South to the docket of the Supreme Court. But after more than a decade of blood, sweat and tears to make our nation live up to its founding ideals, Dr. King recognized that there was another issue exacerbating inequality in America, and that this one was colorblind: Poverty.

Less than a week before he lost his life in the struggle for justice, Dr. King spoke about the Poor People’s Campaign calling for access to housing, healthcare and decent-paying jobs for every citizen. “If a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness,” he said in a sermon at the National Cathedral. “He merely exists.”

Click here to read more.