Martin Luther King Jr.’s first speech at the Lincoln Memorial was not his celebrated 1963 address at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Six years earlier, when he was still a relative newcomer on the national scene, Dr. King addressed 25,000 civil-rights activists who had gathered at the memorial for the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom on May 17, 1957. History has not accorded quite so much attention to the speech King delivered that day, but the tenor of these times invites us to embrace its message once more.
Noting the “open defiance” that was preventing implementation of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling, King suggested that the “betrayal” of disenfranchised Americans by politicians of both parties offered the ultimate argument for why the struggle for voting rights is so essential to the broader struggle for economic and social justice, environmental protection, and peace. “The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote,” declared Dr. King, who continued:
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.
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Give us the ballot, and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.
Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill and send to the sacred halls of Congress men who will not sign a ‘Southern Manifesto’ because of their devotion to the manifesto of justice.
Give us the ballot, and we will place judges on the benches of the South who will do justly and love mercy, and we will place at the head of the southern states governors who will, who have felt not only the tang of the human, but the glow of the Divine.
Give us the ballot, and we will quietly and nonviolently, without rancor or bitterness, implement the Supreme Court’s (Brown) decision of May seventeenth, 1954.
The 28-year-old pastor, whose 89th birthday is celebrated this month, delivered more than great oratory that day in 1957. He outlined a strategy for justice campaigners that would extend through the 1960s and beyond. The achievement of full voting rights—and of a political process that encouraged participation by all Americans—became an essential goal for African-Americans who battled against Jim Crow segregation. It also galvanized the movements that took inspiration from the civil-rights campaigners of the 1960s and demanded representation for Latinos, Native Americans, young people, women, the LGBTQ community, immigrants, people of varying faith traditions, and people with disabilities.
This vision of voter justice came to be broadly accepted in the 1960s and early 1970s, as Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as the overwhelming majority of states approved the 24th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the poll tax and finally barred economic barriers to voting, and the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18.
While individual states retained troublesome barriers to political empowerment, so many changes were made in this country that it seemed as if the promise of voter justice was on the march. Reasonable people had every right to believe that this progress would continue, and that the promise of democracy might be made real for all Americans.
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But unreasonable people recognized King’s “Give Us the Ballot” agenda not as a promise but as a threat. They knew that high-turnout elections and ever-expanding democracy would—as King had suggested—change not just the complexion of those who cast ballots in elections but also the policies that extend from those elections. As conservative strategist Paul Weyrich famously explained in 1981, “I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
Weyrich may have been on the fringe at one time. But the ideas of the co-founder of the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council have gained traction not just in the conservative movement but at the very top of a Republican Party that is now headed by Donald Trump. The author Ari Berman, whose book on the Voting Rights Act took its title from King’s speech, asserts that American democracy is “under siege.” And there is more than enough evidence to confirm his assessment. The past decade has seen a conservative majority on the United States Supreme Court gut key components of the Voting Rights Act, the extreme gerrymandering of state legislative and congressional district lines by Republicans in the states, and the enactment of harshly restrictive “voter-ID” laws along with draconian constraints on early voting and same-day registration. It has seen politicized efforts to purge voters from registration lists. It has also seen the rise of the fantastical claim that millions of votes are cast “illegally” in a country that has one of the lowest voter-turnout rates among the world’s democracies.
The voter-fraud delusion has moved from the far fringes of our political discourse to the corridors of power, as was evident last year when the president of the United States announced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that: “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” PolitiFact rated the claim a “pants-on-fire” lie. But Trump proceeded in May of 2017 to appoint a Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity led by Vice President Mike Pence and “voter fraud” fabulist Kris Kobach.
Dismissed by Democrats and responsible Republicans as a political ploy with a dangerous agenda, the advisory commission was finally disbanded this month amid internal dissension, legal controversy, and public outcry. It failed to formally document a single instance of voter fraud. In fact, according to a White House aide, “The Commission did not create any preliminary findings.”
Yet Trump is not giving up. He announced on January 3 that he was charging the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) with carrying on where his advisory commission left off. Kobach suggests that the DHS can take up the work of purging voter rolls. It is unclear whether that is even possible, since White House Director of Information Technology Charles Herndon informed a federal judge six days after the dissolution of the Pence-Kobach project that any state voter-registration data that had been collected by the advisory commission would be destroyed rather than shared with the DHS or other agencies. This chaos is particularly concerning because of the prospect that Trump and Kobach will continue to seek avenues not merely to peddle pants-on-fire-lies but to use those lies to justify new assaults on voting rights.
What a shameful circumstance the United States finds itself in as we join in this year’s Martin Luther King Day celebrations and as we prepare for this year’s solemn commemoration of the 50th anniversary of his assassination. How unsettling it is that the threats to voting rights that so concerned our nation’s greatest civil-rights campaigner are still alive in the 21st century. The warning that King delivered in his 1957 speech at the Lincoln Memorial rings as true as ever. He said then that “all types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters.” The conniving methods of today are more sophisticated, and they are promoted in more calculating language. But the threat of old has been renewed and extended. Tens of millions of Americans, of every race and creed, in every region of the United States, face the prospect of voter suppression so severe that it will warp elections and governance nationwide.
That’s unacceptable. It is not merely unacceptable because of the danger to democracy. It is unacceptable because of the danger to the progress of the United States as a diverse nation where, despite all of its past and all of its contemporary challenges, the long arc of our history can and must be bent toward justice.
To bend that arc, a new National Commission for Voter Justice has been constituted at the urging of the Reverend Jesse L. Jackson Sr., leaders of the National Bar Association and scholars and activists from across the country. This nonpartisan commission, which will launch this week in Washington, begins with the premise that Americans need reliable information about threats to voting rights, and that the information can and should be employed not merely to address those threats but to establish a voter-justice ethic that says every community and every state should be striving for the highest level of voter participation in every election. Working with existing organizations, it will build upon the research and insights of the country’s burgeoning coalition of democracy advocates.
The commission will explore a range of responses to voter suppression and to patterns of low voter turnout—including universal early voting, automatic voter registration at 18, restoration of voting rights for citizens who are returning from incarceration, and the provision of funding and structural support for safe and secure elections. It will also explore the democracy deficit that leaves Americans in Washington, DC, as well as Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and other US territories, with inadequate representation or no representation at all. The commission, which expects to conduct its work from January 2018, through December 2019, will hold at least 18 regional and special hearings, sponsor national training events, and publish at least eight briefing papers, advisories, and reports.
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While the hearings will identify existing and potential threats to voting rights, the ultimate goal of the commission is a positive one. The commissioners, who come from many backgrounds and political and ideological traditions, will seek to address the tactics and strategies that marginalize vulnerable disenfranchised communities and impede the basic human right to vote with the goal of redressing low voter turnout and ushering in a new era of high-turnout elections for local, state and national positions.
There are many ways in which King’s legacy can and should be celebrated. But the members of the National Commission for Voter Justice are inspired by a passionate faith that the best way in which to celebrate his “Give Us the Ballot” vision is to renew and extend it in the 21st century. This is the urgent work of our time, and we embrace it with a sense of mission that combines the righteous indignation and audacious hope that was expressed more than 60 years ago. King spoke then of how threats to the rule of law and the promise of American democracy had “risen to ominous proportions.” The threats—to voting rights; to voter justice; to government of, by and for the people—have risen anew. It is again the case, as King concluded in 1957, that: “The hour is late. The clock of destiny is ticking out. We must act now, before it is too late.”
Barbara ArnwineBarbara Arnwine is a veteran civil rights leader and the president and founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition.
John NicholsJohn Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and the author of the new book Coronavirus Criminals and Pandemic Profiteers: Accountability for Those Who Caused the Crisis (Verso). He’s also the author of The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party: The Enduring Legacy of Henry Wallace's Anti-Fascist, Anti-Racist Politics, from Verso; Horsemen of the Trumpocalypse: A Field Guide to the Most Dangerous People in America, from Nation Books; and co-author, with Robert W. McChesney, of People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy.