The fight for voting rights intensified this week with a Black woman lawmaker being arrested while protesting, Texas House Democrats fleeing the state to block Republicans from passing voter restrictions, and Black civil rights leaders blasting President Joe Biden for falling short of their demand to discuss ending the filibuster in his speech.
On Friday, 20 Black women organizers met with Vice President Kamala Harris to discuss their concerns about the nationwide assault on voting rights and the urgent need for support from the White House. The leaders of several Black civil rights groups met with Biden last week about the same issues.
It all comes as the nation marks the one-year anniversary of the death of John Lewis, an icon who fought tirelessly for equal voting rights throughout his life.
Civil rights leaders say Lewis’ life should serve as an example of how to win as activists push Congress to pass federal legislation that would protect voting access and counter the growing list of state-level laws that restrict voters. Lewis marched in the streets and fought in Congress for voting rights, but he never lost his patience or his faith, civil rights leader Andrew Young said.
“He struggled with the same process, the same issues, but he never gave up, he never gave in,” Young said. “He never got angry.”
Lewis will be honored Saturday at a candlelight vigil at Black Lives Matter Plaza in DC. Texas House Democrats who traveled there earlier this week to protest voter restrictions in Texas and lobby for federal laws are expected to attend. Members of the Texas Democratic Legislature submitted a letter to Biden on Friday requesting a meeting to discuss the attack on voting rights in their state.
Lewis was recognized on Friday during a hearing held by the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said it was critical for the Senate to pass voting rights legislation.
“The greatest tribute to John Lewis is to protect the fundamental right to vote,” Jackson Lee said during the hearing. “And to reinforce the basis of the 1965 Civil Rights Act and the 15th Amendment.”
On Thursday, Rep. Joyce Beatty was arrested after participating in a voting rights protest in DC where demonstrators sang songs including “We Shall Overcome” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Her arrest came three weeks after civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson and social justice activist Rev. William Barber II were arrested during a Capitol Hill protest over voting rights and the filibuster’s abolition.
Young noted that Lewis and other leaders also faced resistance and opposition from some lawmakers when they lobbied for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Notably, Lewis was beaten by police as he marched for voting rights across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, that year. Still, he kept fighting and the legislation was ultimately passed by the House and the Senate and signed by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Young said he believes Congress will eventually pass the For the People and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement acts despite the filibuster.
“In the long run it’s going to work out, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have to work,” Young said.
Funding the movement
Some leaders say they will honor Lewis’ life by boosting their own efforts to combat voter suppression.
Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of Martin Luther King Jr., and his wife Arndrea King launched the #ForJohn campaign this week that will raise money for local organizers in critical states who are fighting for equal voting rights and pressing their Senators to pass election reform legislation.
King said the campaign’s first donation will go to “March On for Voting Rights,” a mass voting rights mobilization across the country that will mark the 58th anniversary of the historic March on Washington.
King said he not only wants to continue the work Lewis started and model his resilience but also counter Republicans who he says are blocking progress for their own interests.
“When you make it difficult for people to vote, whether it’s students, whether it’s the Black and brown community, whether it’s seniors, that really is undemocratic,” King said. “We should be expanding the process and that is the legacy of John Lewis.”
‘Inequality’ around ballot access
LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, said she too believes voting rights advocates will ultimately prevail in their battle for federal legislation just as Lewis did in 1965.
Black Voters Matter led a bus tour across the country last month to educate the public about voting, lobby for equal voting access and empower people to join their efforts.
Brown was among the Black women organizers who attended the White House meeting with Harris on Friday. The goal of the meeting, she said, was to emphasize that Black and brown people need embedded protections in the law so that their voting rights are not determined by which political party is in office.
Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition of Black Civic Participation, also attended the meeting and said she left feeling “optimistic” about the administration’s commitment to voting rights.
Organizers urged Harris and the administration to hold town halls, speak to voters on the ground and deploy more federal agencies to combat voter suppression.
“They need to utilize all the voices that are feasible,” Campbell said. “Because we are in an existential crisis and it is a state of emergency what’s happening here.”
Brown was critical of Biden following his speech Tuesday saying he failed to speak out against the filibuster, which has made it impossible for Democrats to move forward with voting rights legislation because their slim majority in the Senate isn’t enough to overcome GOP opposition.
Brown said she will not stop putting pressure on lawmakers and is calling on more people to join her movement.
“The bottom line is there’s inequality around access to the ballot,” Brown said. “I am not going to be satisfied until voting rights are secured… until voting rights are signed and we are protected in way that we can’t be punished because we participate.”
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