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Martin Luther King III wants no 'empty promises' when it comes to voting rights

Members of the King family are using the MLK holiday to rally stronger support for voting rights.
Image: U.S. civil rights activists hold a press conference on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in Washington
Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of Martin Luther King Jr., at a news conference Monday to urge Democrats to pass a law to protect voting rights on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.Elizabeth Frantz / Reuters

Martin Luther King Jr. and his fellow leaders and legions of foot soldiers who battled segregation and racial discrimination marched in countless acts of civil disobedience and defiance that fueled the civil rights movement. 

Decades later, to mark this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday observances, King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, his wife Arndrea Waters King, and granddaughter Yolanda Renee King are marching too. They intend to cross literal and symbolic bridges alongside national and grassroots groups, and individual supporters. 

“We’re working to restore the very voting rights protections my father and countless other civil rights leaders bled to secure,” said King, chairman of the Drum Major Institute, initially launched in the 1960s. “We will not accept empty promises in pursuit of my father’s dream for a more equal and just America.”

Their mass mobilization, Deliver for Voting Rights, is part of an ongoing campaign to expand voting rights legislation and restore full power of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Although a seminal achievement of the movement, and part of King’s legacy, the Shelby County v. Holder decision by the Supreme Court in 2013 stripped key provisions of the law. Then in 2021, the high court’s ruling on Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee further gutted the legislation. 

Last year alone, state legislatures across the country introduced some 440 voter suppression bills in 49 states. At least 19 states, including Georgia and Texas, have enacted voter ID requirements and other laws that critics say restrict access to the ballot, while supporters have described them as voter integrity measures. 

The mobilization began in Phoenix on Saturday, on what would have been the slain leader’s 93rd birthday. There, members of the King family will march and rally for voting rights, in tandem with the Arizona Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee and other allies. 

On Monday, the federal holiday, King’s family and hundreds of supporters have planned a morning crossing of the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, which spans the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. They’ll meet up with those taking part in the MLK Holiday D.C. 16th Annual Peace Walk.

The same day, the Kings will also host a noon news conference at Union Station with guest speakers, and participate in a breakfast with Al Sharpton and the National Action Network. 

About 150 multiracial civil rights, labor, clergy and other groups are helping to organize, amplify and support the King commemorative voting rights actions.

“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,” said Arndrea Waters King, president of the Drum Major Institute and a longtime activist who worked with the late Reverend C.T. Vivian, a civil rights stalwart and proponent of nonviolence. “Voting is an essential part of our democracy’s infrastructure, and we cannot afford for it to crumble any further.”

The MLK holiday actions come amid protests, arrests for civil disobedience and fervent calls for federal voting rights legislation. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris recently traveled to Atlanta, where they met with King’s youngest daughter, Bernice King, at the King Center, founded by the late Coretta Scott King. 

For more than a year, Congress has considered federal voting rights legislation. While Democrats in the House have passed measures mostly along partisan lines, to date, Senate action has stalled. Democrats accuse GOP senators of using the filibuster to block debate on three separate voting rights bills. They include the For the People Act in June 2021; the Freedom to Vote Act in October 2021; and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in November 2021.

This week, the House passed the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. The legislation now heads to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain. 

While the chamber adjourned on Thursday because of Covid-19 concerns and a winter storm threat to the D.C. region this weekend, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed on the Senate floor that a planned recess would be postponed so the Senate could vote on voting rights. 

 “We will return on Tuesday to take up the House-passed message containing voting rights legislation,” he said to his Senate colleagues. “Make no mistake, the United States Senate will — for the first time this Congress — debate voting rights legislation beginning on Tuesday.”

Schumer noted that senators were “elected to debate and to vote, particularly on an issue as vital to the beating heart of our democracy as this one. And we will proceed. And if Senate Republicans choose obstruction over protecting the sacred right to vote — as we expect them to — the Senate will consider and vote on changing the Senate rules — as has been done many times before — to allow for passage of voting rights legislation.”

President Biden met on Capitol Hill with the Senate Democratic Caucus on Thursday, and had separate meetings at the White House with Sens. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., and Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., who’ve publicly expressed reticence over changes to the filibuster, and more. On Thursday, Sinema said she was not changing her position on the filibuster.

Asked by reporters if he was confident about getting a voting rights bill passed, Biden said, “I hope we can get this done. The honest to God answer is, I don’t know whether we can get this done.”

He added, “As long as I have a breath in me, as long as I’m in the White House, as long as I’m engaged at all, I’m going to be fighting to change the way these legislatures have [been] moving.” 

Martin Luther King III told NBC News he could not “speak to speculation” about the fate of the bill. “I’m not gonna say,`Oh we’re in trouble. I’m not going to embrace that,” he said. 

He and his family vow to press forward. “The legislative process ultimately can transform when the right pressure is placed upon, oftentimes, elected officials. We’re gonna continue demonstrations that say give us legislation that protects, preserves and expands voting rights.”

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