WASHINGTON - Members of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s family demanded Monday that the Senate scrap the filibuster and pass voting rights legislation as they led a Washington D.C. march on the holiday honouring the civil rights icon.
King's son, Martin Luther King III, his wife Arndrea Waters King and their teenager daughter, Yolanda Renee King, joined several hundred other activists and residents in a frigid walk across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. The bridge, they said, symbolized Congress's support for the recently approved $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.
"To the president and United States senators, you were successful with infrastructure, which is a great thing," King III told the crowd gathered outside Nationals Park before they headed over the bridge. "But you need to use the same energy to ensure all Americans have an unencumbered right to vote." As a wintry breeze blew, D.C. resident Lydia Davis said she and a friend marched to honour King and advocate for access to the ballot box, as well as other rights he fought for. "I'm 64, and all the issues we're marching for are the same things," said Davis, a D.C. schools substitute teacher. "I'm marching so my daughter doesn't have to march 10 years from now."
The group continued as part of the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Walk on its two-mile route along Martin Luther King Avenue SE. They then were scheduled to attend a news conference at Union Station with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other House members to call on the Senate to avoid a filibuster and pass the voting rights bill.
"From the Civil War to the Jim Crow era, the filibuster has blocked popular bills to stop lynching, end poll taxes, and fight workplace discrimination," organizers said on their website. "Now it's being used to block voting rights. The weaponisation of the filibuster is racism cloaked in procedure and it must go."
The King family also participated with hundreds of others in a march Saturday in Phoenix, according to media reports.
Participants on Monday hoisted signs saying "Black votes matter," "Jews for the freedom to vote," and "Voter suppression is un-American." The Rev. Ray East, 71, said the wintry temperatures and slushy mess left from the previous evening's snow and freezing rain didn't discourage him from joining the peace walk, as he has for about the past 10 years. With voting rights legislation pending in Congress, he said, participating this year felt even more pressing. "I can't think of another time in my life when we were at a juncture like this - where we have the opportunity for us to do the right thing and act on the side of justice and democracy," East, a District resident, said as he brought up the rear of the crowd. "When Dr. King was marching, I was a teenager. Now it's about voting and how important it is for people to be enfranchised." Speaking of which, East said, "It's a good time to talk about D.C. statehood." Many participants, including King III, said they couldn't advocate for voting rights without including a call to give the District voting representation in Congress.
The "Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act," passed by the House last week, is scheduled for Senate consideration as early as Tuesday. However, its passage is in doubt because Democrats lack the votes to change the rules to avoid a filibuster from Republican opponents. Supporters' efforts suffered a blow last week when Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) said they would oppose attempts to change the filibuster rules.
The Democratic senators' opposition also marked a defeat for President Biden, who had personally appealed for congressional support to end the filibuster following a major voting rights speech in Atlanta. Biden said the Senate should eliminate the filibuster if necessary to at least debate the legislation, calling recent state limits on voting access a "threat to our democracy" and "Jim Crow 2.0."
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has said he could start debate on the voting rights bill with a simple majority of 51 votes because of rules that govern the way it passed the House. However, unless the Senate changes the filibuster rules, 60 votes would still be required to end debate and move to a vote.
The Senate is split 50-50, and voting rights measures have had united opposition from Republicans.
GOP-led legislatures, many spurred by President Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, have recently passed voting restrictions, including expanding ID requirements and limiting early voting and voting by mail. Democrats and civil rights leaders say those changes will suppress the vote, particularly among minorities, while Republicans say they need to prevent voter fraud and restore public faith in the electoral process.
The pending legislation would establish national standards for voter registration, early voting, voting by mail and permissible voter IDs. It also would make Election Day a federal holiday and restore federal legal authority over certain voting changes in states and jurisdictions with a history of discrimination, according to reports.