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Just two weeks after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the editors of America Magazine mourned the seismic loss in an editorial: “Will this prophet be heard in death as he was not heard in life? Will the martyr accomplish by his blood what he could not achieve by his words?” At the time, this lamentation was a plea for the nation to honor King’s legacy wholly while it grappled with the paroxysms of grief. In hindsight, it was more of a portentous nod to the reality we now endure.
Fifty three years later, Dr. King’s family is still prodding lawmakers to effectuate their reverence for the late civil rights leader by passing voting rights legislation. “You delivered for bridges, now deliver for voting rights, Martin Luther King III, the oldest living child of the icon and Coretta Scott King, said in a recent statement.
Ahead of Monday’s national holiday, the family has mobilized activists this past weekend to pressure Congress to maneuver through the political impasse for voting rights the same way they did for the recently passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure package. With a grave impetus for suffrage at the fore of it all, King III has asserted that the nation must not indulge in “celebration” without accompanying legislation.
The voting landscape of 2021 endured the signing of the most draconian and restrictive bills into law. In Georgia, whose nonwhite precincts are hallmarked by their distressingly long lines, SB 202 criminalizes the distribution of water and food to voters waiting in line. It furthermore grants state-level officials the power to supplant county election boards — posing a grave threat that the predominantly Republican state government will disenfranchise Democrat-dominating areas.
Texas’ SB.1 protects partisan poll watchers as election officials now face prosecution for regulating poll watchers’ inappropriate behavior and discourages poll assistance . And in direct opposition to the civil rights crusader’s most notable civic triumph, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Supreme Court recently upheld Arizona’s novel, stringent election laws that nullifies ballots cast in the wrong precinct, and bans anyone outside of family as well as caregivers to turn in someone’s mail-in ballot.
These sprawling restrictions are regressing the nation to the same contentious terrain of the civil rights era where political franchise was forbidden amongst Black communities. The congressional power to begin rebuilding our embattled voting process lies within the Freedom to Vote Act.
This comprehensive bill, which is currently languishing in the Senate, features national standards for voter identification, voting protections for mail-in ballots, and making Election Day a national holiday. Moreover, this legislative glint of optimism is on the cusp of being squandered as Republicans weaponize their power to filibuster.
Dr. King is undoubtedly helming the pantheon of national heroes while his legacy is naturally neutralized at the hands of our nation’s lawmakers. The paradox continues to unfold before us: Congress eulogizes his riveting activism while diluting it in the same instance.
Since President Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, King’s life work has suffered through the process of canonization over the years. Every third Monday of the new year, politicians fervently call upon King’s nonviolent approach to civic change in order to absolve themselves of their indolent progress toward the very dream they quote. Discarding his radicalism, repackaging him through a revisionist lens and heralding him as a palatable Black citizen is a disservice to this country’s capability to move forward with truth.
Following the murder of George Floyd, the racial reckoning of 2020 uncovered the harsh truths of how our carceral state is deliberately constructed to discard of Black lives. “Across the country, we’ve seen examples of police protecting protesters, and protesters embracing police, and it’s been beautiful to watch,” White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said amid the heated summer of protests. “And I just want to leave you with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that ‘We must learn to live together as brothers or we will perish together as fools.’”
Invoking his words to establish some flaccid sense of equality recalls his poignant “riot is the language of the unheard” position in his 1967 speech “The Other America.” King asserts, “It may well be that shouts of Black Power and riots in Watts and the Harlems and the other areas are the consequences of the white backlash rather than the cause of them.”
In 2019, Former Vice President Mike Pence quoted King’s famed 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech to defend President Donald Trump’s plea to Congress to fund the construction of a wall along the U.S.- Mexico border. “One of my favorite quotes from Dr. King was ‘Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,’” he said.
Pence’s excerpt selection particularly omitted King’s following words: “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.”
In response to Congress’ verbose expressions of praise to the late reverend on Martin Luther King Day, we must certainly lean on our recollection of King’s 1965 letter “Let My People Vote” — an impassioned call to action when the Voting Rights Act languished in the House Rules Committee, the civil rights crusader penned his lauded letter.
In his enduring message, he wrote, “We are not so naive as to believe persons who have traditionally opposed our right to vote will now desist from intimidating us.” He continued, “There must be a change. There will be a change. For to deny a person the right to exercise his political freedom at the polls is no less a dastardly act as to deny a Christian the right to petition God in prayer.”
Our inability to honor Dr. King’s legacy wholly is a reflection of how we have reduced him to a martyr and forgotten that he was an assassinated revolutionary.