January 12, 2022 – President Joe Biden’s recent visit to Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hometown, focused national attention on a somber fact: the legacy of the civil rights movement is threatened by recent and ongoing attacks on voting rights.
Sitting on the campus of Morehouse College, Dr. King’s alma mater, surrounded by friends and colleagues in the voting rights movement, I felt proud that we had arrived at this moment. Every one of us was committed to keeping our eyes on the prize, prepared to do whatever it takes to see President Biden sign urgently needed voting rights protections into law.
President Biden’s words matched the magnitude of the moment. “I will not yield,” he said. “I will not flinch. I will defend the right to vote and our democracy against all enemies, foreign, and yes, domestic.”
Biden appealed to Republican senators to restore the bipartisan tradition of supporting voting rights, but he also made it clear that the Senate should act even if they do not.
“To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules, whichever way they need to be changed, to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights,” he said. “When it comes to protecting majority rule in America, the majority should rule in the United States Senate.”
History is made of such moments — or at least it can be, if the moments lead to real change.
In his famous 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech, President Lyndon Johnson addressed Congress after the brutal assault on voting rights marchers in Selma, Alabama. He urged Americans to see the protection of voting rights as a moral necessity. And he called on Congress to pass voting rights legislation.
History makes it clear that, while Johnson was a supporter of civil rights, it took some effort to move him to make voting rights a top priority. He was lobbied by King and other civil rights leaders. And a few days before Johnson addressed Congress, voting rights activists engaged in a sit-in inside the White House.
To his credit, Johnson acknowledged those who engaged in direct action. “The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro,” he told Congress. “His actions and protests, his courage to risk safety and even to risk his life, have awakened the conscience of this nation.”
Black Americans, said Johnson, had “called upon us to make good the promise of America.”
In recent months, civil rights activists, religious leaders, and social justice advocates have engaged in a series of direct actions outside the White House. Nearly 300 people, including Martin Luther King, Jr.’s son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter were arrested.
We called on President Biden to make good the promise of America at a time when that promise is being undermined by restrictive voting laws being passed by conservative legislators across the country.
We knew that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris strongly support voting rights. But we needed more. We asked Biden to use the full power of his presidency to overcome this generation’s “states’ rights” advocates — senators using filibuster rules to prevent the Senate from taking action on voting rights protections.
We warmly welcome the commitment President Biden made in Atlanta. We pledge that we will work with the president, vice president, and congressional leaders to see the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act become law.
History must be made, not simply spoken into being. President Johnson’s speech to Congress would be remembered very differently if it hadn’t been followed a few months later by his signing the Voting Rights Act into law. We urge all senators to reject the use of the filibuster to block voting rights protections.
President Biden, congressional leaders, and senators from both parties hold history — and our future — in their hands.
Ben Jealous is the president of People For the American Way and the People For the American Way Foundation. He is a former president of the NAACP. This op-ed was distributed by OtherWords.org.