To Truly Honor Black History, Protect Voting Rights

February 24, 2022

This Black History Month, we recognize the individual and collective efforts of the long line of Black scholars, organizers, and activists who have championed the fight for racial justice. As we reflect on their legacies, we also see strong parallels between their historical fights and the ones we face in 2022: the fight for inclusion in the democratic process, the struggle to build political power, and the racist backlash against Black liberation and multiracial solidarity. From bills banning discussions of racism to laws restricting voting, some politicians are actively working to undermine racial justice and our democracy.

Today’s Senate fight recalls the filibuster’s history as a racist tool to block civil rights legislation.

The right to vote is essential to building the political power of our communities. But the path to realizing the promise of multiracial democracy remains in jeopardy due to an antidemocratic faction committed to conservative minority rule. Just last month, Republican senators blocked voting rights legislation for the fifth time in the past year alone. This vote, scheduled shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, was meant to encourage senators to embody the legacy of Dr. King’s fight for voting rights. Instead, it was a painful reminder of the power of obstructionist politicians and the filibuster’s persistent legacy as a tool to hinder civil rights. It was a clear indication that we are still far from our nation’s democratic ideals, and that the Senate remains an undemocratic institution that perpetuates structural racism.

“I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided Senators who would use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting. They won’t let the majority of Senators vote. And certainly they don’t want the majority of people to vote because they know they don’t represent the majority of people.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr (1963)

The filibuster has long been a favorite tool of segregationists to block civil rights legislation. For decades, Black activists organized and pressured Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957—the first civil rights legislation since the Reconstruction era. However, due to compromises made to overcome the filibuster by segregationist senators in Congress, the law was ultimately weakened and ended up being difficult to enforce.  

Less than a decade later, continued organizing and pressure led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which put the weight of the federal government behind civil rights enforcement. These bills also needed to overcome opposition from the segregationist caucus. 

Led by Democratic Senator Richard Russell, the Southern Bloc undertook a 75-day filibuster to stop the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But a supermajority rallied to beat that filibuster with a 71–29 cloture vote in June 1964, with 44 Democrats and 27 Republicans voting to push the bill forward. 

In 2022, as in 1964, the filibuster is again being weaponized for racial suppression. But today, we do not have enough senators willing to legislate in favor of democracy.  

We need federal action to stop state legislatures from rolling back voting rights.

Across the country, Republican-led state legislatures are passing voting restriction laws that disenfranchise voters—particularly people of color, low-income people, and young people. These efforts are supported by Republicans in the US Senate, who made clear their dedicated opposition to reaffirming voting rights when they mounted filibusters against every voting rights protection bill proposed last year, including one written specifically in the spirit of bipartisanship to appeal to Republicans.

This is an asymmetrical fight. Republican-controlled legislatures are using simple majorities to undermine democracy by disenfranchising voters, while the filibuster prevents the Senate from acting in defense of democracy without a supermajority. It has become crystal clear that there is no realistic path to pass voting rights legislation without a change to the rules

Democratic Senators Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) claim that they support voting rights legislation, but remain opposed to eliminating or reforming the filibuster. Their commitment to democracy should be the same as their commitment to the economy: Just recently, both voted to bypass the filibuster in order to raise the debt ceiling.  

Champions of voting rights are still fighting to keep the promise of a multiracial democracy alive.

With last month’s failed attempt to protect the vote, Senate Democrats came up short in their effort to strengthen the foundation of our democracy. 

In a speech before last month’s vote, Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) said of his  dedication to reaffirming voting rights: “[I]f not tonight, we will come back again, and again, and again.” Referencing Dr. King’s legacy, Senator Warnock called on the Senate to take action in this “defining moral moment in America.”

Like the defenders of democracy in the 1960s fight for voting rights, today’s champions of voting rights recognize that the inclusion of Black and brown voters is essential to making our democracy the truest it has ever been. Giving up is not an option. We must continue the fight to keep the promise of multiracial democracy alive.