Dr. King believed in the power of the vote to change society. Dismantling voting rights is an affront to his legacy.
Perhaps one of the most important teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King was the idea that you can’t change civil society through mob violence or terrorism. You change it through civic action and peaceful protests. In other words, the “good trouble” that Rep. John Lewis often talked about.
Perhaps even more important in our great democracy, Dr. King believed, is the ability to change society through the power of the vote. The great irony of our present moment is that both of those precepts — peaceful change and voting rights — are under assault and threatened in America like never in our lifetimes.
One wonders what Dr. King would have made of this current moment in American history and particularly the events of Jan. 6, 2021, when extremists stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stage a coup and subvert American democracy in the aftermath of a contentious election.
Let’s make no mistake: The assault on our civil society and democracy did not end on January 6. The challenges we’re seeing to voting rights across the country now pose a risk to the fundamental right for Americans — all Americans — to play a role in deciding the future direction of our country
It’s no wonder that Dr. King’s family is calling for “no celebration” on MLK Day unless there’s meaningful action on voting rights legislation. Just as prior leaders at ADL and others in the Jewish community marched with Dr. King at Selma and stood with him in Washington, D.C., ADL stands shoulder to shoulder with his family, the entire African American community and all people of color in this struggle to ensure the right to vote is available to all Americans regardless of their background.
Dr. King thought a great deal about the power of the vote and democracy throughout his life. Speaking about Black feelings of disenfranchisement in the 1960s, he wrote, “…when the Negro citizen learns that united and organized pressure can achieve measurable results, he will make his influence felt. Out of this conscious act, the political power of the aroused minority will be enhanced and consolidated.”
But if some state legislators now have their way, contrary to Dr. King’s vision, voter disenfranchisement could become the law of the land.
In an unprecedented year for anti-voter legislation, at least 19 states enacted 33 laws in 2021, making it more difficult for Americans to cast a vote. Many state lawmakers used outright falsehoods to justify these laws despite the fact that the 2020 election was the most secure in U.S. history. These new laws interfere with the freedom to vote by erecting deliberate, unnecessary barriers that disproportionately affect people of color, students, people who live in rural areas, people of limited means, and other marginalized communities.
In March 2021, the Georgia State Legislature passed SB 202, a major law that restricted and suppressed voting across the state. Voting rights groups, civil rights organizations, and other advocates criticized and condemned the law, saying it limited voting rights and it unfairly targeted voters of color. Many other states followed suit.
As I write in my new book, “It Could Happen Here,” we should not take the fundamental right to vote for granted. That’s why ADL has condemned the legislation, created educational materials around the issue and committed to furthering our collaboration with the National Urban League to contribute our support to this fight.
ADL has remained actively engaged with partner organizations on ways to ensure equal and fair access to the ballot during a pandemic, including serving as a plaintiff (represented by the Brennan Center) in a case in Texas challenging that state’s 2021 voter suppression law. Among the other plaintiffs in the case are a large Black church and several Hispanic organizations, including one co-founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
Moreover, ADL has come out strongly in support of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. These bills, which are up for consideration in the Senate in the coming days, come at a critical time for our democracy, because a series of Supreme Court decisions have eroded decades of protections against racial discrimination in elections and states across the country are enacting anti-voter laws designed to sabotage elections and silence voters’ voices, particularly for communities of color.
In Shelby County v. Holder (2013), the Supreme Court invalidated a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965: a requirement that states with a history of discrimination must seek federal approval before making changes to their voting laws and practices.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would address the significant harm caused by this case and subsequent cases following its precedent by establishing a new formula for determining when federal oversight is necessary to prevent discriminatory anti-voter restrictions and requiring all states to publicly disclose any new changes to their voting practices.
The Freedom to Vote Act would increase access to the polls by expanding opportunities to vote early or by mail and providing for automatic voter registration and same-day registration. This bill would also address some of the most urgent threats to the free and fair administration of elections by protecting against voter intimidation, restoring the right to vote for individuals who were previously incarcerated, limiting the ability of state legislatures to engage in partisan gerrymandering and increasing transparency of money in politics.
Above all else, this should not be a partisan issue. Voting is the foundation of our democracy. It is fundamental to all our freedoms as Americans. And while a majority of people of color currently might line up behind the Democratic Party, but this always can change. Indeed, laws that suppress the vote can be weaponized against any segment of the population at any time.
We must come together now and join forces against these unprecedented attacks on our democracy — both from violent extremists and pernicious state laws designed to suppress the vote and interfere in the fair administration of elections.
Let’s make no mistake: Dr. King’s legacy depends on it.
Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, is author of “It Could Happen Here: Why America Is Tipping from Hate to the Unthinkable — And How We Can Stop It.”