King Family and Activists Plan Marches to Spur Action on Voting Rights
Prominent backers of stalled voting rights legislation plan a blitz emphasizing the urgent need to counter new state restrictions.,
WASHINGTON — Frustrated with President Biden and congressional Democrats for failing to enact voting rights legislation this year, progressive advocacy groups and descendants of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are planning to use the January holiday commemorating the civil rights leader’s birth to call for more aggressive efforts to overcome Republican opposition.
With two measures stalled on Capitol Hill, members of the King family, backed by dozens of liberal organizations, say they will take their campaign to protect voting rights on the road, holding a series of marches to promote the urgency of the issue beginning Jan. 15 in Phoenix and ending two days later in Washington, D.C., on the official holiday.
They hope to spur action, after months of stalemate in Congress, to offset new voting restrictions being imposed around the country by Republican-led legislatures. And they plan to press their case for killing the filibuster — the maneuver Republicans are using to thwart action in the Senate — condemning it as a tool for perpetuating racist policies.
The planned marches are the most vivid sign yet of activists’ growing dismay with the White House and top Democrats about the party’s inability to move forward on the voting rights bills. Some involved in the fight say they see no clear strategy for success, and argue that Democrats have moved too slowly even as they have pressed hard to break through Republican obstruction on other issues.
“We are calling for no celebration without voting rights legislation,” said Martin Luther King III, the son of Dr. King, who is taking a lead role in organizing the events along with his wife, Arndrea Waters King.
The marches to be announced on Wednesday will take place across bridges, both to symbolize the 1965 civil rights clash on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., and to contrast Mr. Biden and congressional leaders’ success in finding a way to enact a $1 trillion infrastructure measure with their failure so far on the voting bills. The Kings and their allies say it is time for Mr. Biden to apply the same all-out approach to ensure equal access to voting.
“What we have seen in the last several months is what happens when Congress and the administration lend their full weight behind an idea,” Mrs. King said, referring to the infrastructure measure. “Now it is time to use that same power for the people.”
Mr. Biden has at times seemed committed to using his influence to advance the voting measures — even saying he was willing to “fundamentally alter” the filibuster — but he has also said that any action would have to await approval of sweeping domestic policy legislation.
That bill remains tied up, relegating the voting rights bills — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — to the background even as their supporters say time is of the essence to enact new federal rules before next year’s elections.
“We can’t wait any longer,” Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia and one of a group of senators trying to find a way forward, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “The Senate needs to act on voting rights ASAP.”
But overcoming a Republican filibuster on an issue on which Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, is determined to thwart Democrats would require a rules change on the Senate floor. Democratic Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have been adamant that they would not support such a change, leaving Democrats short of the necessary votes despite intensifying calls for action.
The topic dominated Tuesday’s closed Democratic lunch as Senator Raphael Warnock, the Georgia Democrat whose own re-election could be imperiled by Georgia election law changes, gave what attendees described as a powerful speech urging his fellow Democrats to move expeditiously on voting rights.
Repeating the sentiment on the Senate floor, Mr. Warnock said if the Senate could find a way to get around the filibuster for legislation to raise the debt ceiling, as it did last week, it must do the same for voting rights rather than allowing “the ceiling of our democracy to crash in around us.”
“Once we handle the debt ceiling, the Senate needs to make voting rights the very next issue we take up,” Mr. Warnock said.
In response, Mr. Manchin told his colleagues at the lunch that he continued to talk with Republicans about potential voting law changes and defended his stance, saying democracy also depended on leaving Senate rules in place.
Other senators who have previously been reluctant to alter filibuster rules — including Senators Jon Tester, Democrat of Montana, and Angus King, independent of Maine — have become more open to the idea of doing so to enact new voting rights laws. They have talked this week with Mr. Manchin about how to get over the filibuster hurdle and expressed some optimism about progress.
“I think we will get something, I really do,” Mr. Tester said.
Republicans say that Democrats are only seeking to tilt the election playing field to their own advantage and federalize what has traditionally been a state and local role in overseeing elections. They say that if state voting restrictions are considered discriminatory, it is up to the Justice Department to challenge them.
Under the Freedom to Vote Act, Congress would set minimum standards for early and mail-in voting, make Election Day a national holiday and allow requirements that voters produce identification, though the I.D. provision would be less restrictive than those Republicans have imposed. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act seeks to restore elements of the landmark Voting Rights Act weakened by two Supreme Court decisions.
In a joint interview, the Kings portrayed the filibuster — which Southern senators used for decades to block civil rights measures — as a “Jim Crow relic” employed throughout history to deny rights to minorities, and called for its abolition. They noted that they still had to work to protect voting rights for coming generations represented by their 13-year-old daughter, Yolanda Renee King, decades after her grandfather helped secure passage of the Voting Rights Act.
“I learned from my mother that every generation has to earn its freedom,” Mr. King said. “Freedom is not permanently given.”
Among the groups organizing and participating in the marches are the National Action Network, National Urban League, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Service Employees International Union, MoveOn, Demos, the Center for Popular Democracy, Voto Latino, Sierra Club, Coalition for Peace, Faith in Public Life, When We All Vote, March For Our Lives, Bend the Arc and the African American Christian Clergy Coalition.
The Kings said they would happily cancel the demonstrations if Congress found a way to enact the legislation before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a prospect that appears highly unlikely.
“If it does,” Mrs. King said, “then on Jan. 17, we will have a glorious celebration.”