Biden honors MLK Day call to action on voting rights

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden spent their Sunday filling food boxes at Philabundance, a non-profit food bank in Philadelphia, as part of a day of service to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

The federal holiday honors the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the outspoken Baptist minister who became one of the most outspoken leaders of the civil rights movement until his assassination in 1968. 

Biden visited Philabundance last year, just days before his inauguration as the 46th President of the United States, loading food boxes to aid those in need.

While last year’s event took place with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol still fresh in the minds of Americans, this year’s event came one day after an hours-long hostage standoff at a synagogue in Texas and amid a looming battle over voting rights in Congress — reminders that the work Dr. King fought for more than five decades ago is still not finished.

In a speech released Monday, Biden reflected on his visit last week to Atlanta, which he called “the cradle of civil rights in America,” where they prayed at the crypt of Dr. and Mrs. King and met members of King’s family and students as they lobbied Congress to pass voting rights legislation.

Dr. King, Biden said, fought to “fulfill the promise of America for all Americans, a promise that holds that we’re all created equal, and deserve to be treated equally throughout our lives.”

“Dr. King wasn’t just a dreamer of that promise, he was a doer,” Biden said. “And on this federal holiday that honors him, it’s not just enough to praise him: We must commit to his unfinished work, to deliver jobs and justice, to protect the sacred right to vote, the right from which all other rights flow.”

“The attack on our democracy is real,” Biden continued. “From the Jan. 6 insurrection to the onslaught of Republicans’ anti-voting laws in a number of states. It’s no longer just about who gets to vote. It’s about who gets to count the vote, and whether your vote counts at all. It’s about two insidious things: Voter suppression, and election subversion.”

Biden’s remarks hearken back to the civil rights icon’s own words about the importance of the right to vote over six decades ago. 

“So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself,” Dr. King said. “I cannot make up my mind, it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact, I can only submit to the edict of others.”

“Our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote,” Dr. King said in the “Give Us the Ballot” speech at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957. “Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights. Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.”

The House of Representatives last week voted to pass a bill that combines Democrats’ two major voting rights bills — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — and send them to the Senate, setting up a showdown in Congress over access to the ballot box.

The sweeping Freedom to Vote Act, which carries the crucial backing of moderate Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, would make Election Day a national holiday, create a national standard for voter identification, crack down on long voting lines at polling places, expand mail-in voting and mandate states offer a minimum number of days for early voting. It would also outlaw partisan gerrymandering of resdistricting maps, overhaul campaign finance reform and make it a federal crime to harass or threaten election officials. 

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would update and restore provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was gutted by the Supreme Court in separate decisions in 2013 and 2021.

The House passed the combined bill Thursday in a 220-203 party line vote. No Republicans supported the measure. 

President Biden and Democratic leaders have worked tirelessly in recent weeks to advance voting rights legislation in the face of Republican obstruction and efforts at the state level, largely in GOP-led statehouses, to restrict access to the ballot box. 

According to a tally from the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states have passed 34 restrictive voting laws in the last year, the most since the group began tracking such legislation in 2011.

Senate Republicans utilized the filibuster — the 60-vote threshold to pass major legislation in the chamber — multiple times last year to block voting legislation, including a bipartisan agreement on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Just one Republican, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, broke with their party to vote in favor of that bill.

Biden met last week with members of the Senate Democratic caucus to advance voting rights legislation, but admitted he wasn’t sure if they’d be able to change the Senate’s filibuster rules to get it done — especially as moderate Democrat Sens. Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., reiterated their support for keeping the filibuster intact, much to the dismay of the progressive wing of the party.

“The honest-to-God answer is I don’t know whether we can get this done,” Biden said last week. “I hope we can get this done but I’m not sure.”

Still, Biden pledged to press on in the fight to expand access to the ballot box: “Like every other major civil rights bill that came along, if we miss the first time, we can come back and try the second time.”

“If we miss this time and the state legislative bodies continue to change the law not as to who can vote but who gets to count the vote, count the vote, count the vote — it’s about election subversion, not just whether or not people get to vote,” the president warned. “Who counts the vote? That’s what this is about, that’s what makes this so different from anything else we’ve ever done.”

“I don’t know that we can get it done but I know one thing, as long as I have a breath in me, as long as I am in the White House, as long as I’m engaged at all, I’m going to be fighting to change the way these legislatures [are] moving,” he pledged.

But such promises are not enough for many voting rights activists, including Dr. King’s family who said said there should be “no celebration” of MLK Day until lawmakers take action on voting rights.

Martin Luther King III, his wife, Arndrea Waters King and their daughter, Yolanda Renee King, said in a statement along with 80 grassroots civil rights organizations, said that there should be “no celebration without meaningful voting rights legislation.”

“President Biden and Congress used their political muscle to deliver a vital infrastructure deal, and now we are calling on them to do the same to restore the very voting rights protections my father and countless other civil rights leaders bled to secure,” MLK III said. “Like those who crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, we will not accept empty promises in pursuit of my father’s dream for a more equal and just America.”

“On the historic day of service to commemorate my father-in-law and continue his work, we will join our voices together to call for no celebration without meaningful voting rights legislation,” Arndrea Waters King said. “Voting is an essential part of our democracy’s infrastructure, and we cannot afford for it to crumble any further. President Biden and Congress must fight for the voting rights of Black and Brown Americans the same way they fought for our bridges — with every ounce of power their office provides.”

MLK’s family and hundreds of other activists were set to march across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington to protest for voting rights and join up with the annual MLK Day D.C. Peace Walk

“Through his courage, his conviction and his commitment, Dr. King held a mirror up to America and forced us to answer the question: Where do we stand? Who side are we on?” Biden said in his remarks. “We’re in another moment right now, where the mirror is being held up to America, being held up again.”

“The question being asked again: Where do we stand? Whose side are we on? Will we stand against voter suppression, Yes or No?” Biden asked. “Will we stand up for an America or everyone is guaranteed the full protections and the full promise of this nation, Yes or no? I know where I stand.”

“It’s time for every elected official in America to make it clear where they stand. It’s time for every American to stand up,” Biden said. “Speak out, be heard. Where do you stand? Whose side are you on?”



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