Monday, January 20, 2020

The Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a United States federal holiday marking the birthday of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is observed on the third Monday of January each year, which is around the time of King's birthday, January 15.

The campaign for a federal holiday in King's honor began soon after his assassination in 1968, and the idea was strongly supported by labor unions. After King's death, United States Representative John Conyers (a Democrat from Michigan) and United States Senator Edward Brooke (a Republican from Massachusetts) first introduced a bill in Congress to make King's birthday a national holiday. The bill first came to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1979. However, it fell five votes short of the number needed for passage.

The bill was finally passed by Congress and Ronald Reagan signed the holiday into law in 1983, and it was first observed on January 20, 1986. At first, some states resisted observing the holiday as such, giving it alternative names or combining it with other holidays. It was officially observed in all 50 states for the first time in 2000.

Dr. King was the chief spokesman for nonviolent activism in the civil rights movement, which successfully protested racial discrimination in federal and state law.

Dr. Martin Luther King
(Jan. 15, 1929 - April 4, 1968)
The 1965 Voting Rights Act was a natural follow on to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Ironically, the 1964 Act had resulted in an outbreak of violence in the South. White racists had launched a campaign against the success that Martin Luther King had had in getting African Americans to register to vote. The violence prompted Pres. Johnson, at King’s urgings, to specifically address the voting rights issue.

Johnson introduced to Congress the idea of a Voting Rights Act in what is considered to be one of his best speeches:
"Rarely are we met with a challenge… the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation. The issue of equal rights for American Negroes is such as an issue…..the command of the Constitution is plain. It is wrong - deadly wrong - to deny any of your fellow Americans the right to vote in this country."
With his commitment to the cause, Congress realized that Johnson would not back down on this issue and if they hindered or failed to back it, Americans would view the failure to be one by Congress alone.

The Act was passed. It outlawed literacy tests and poll taxes as a way of assessing whether anyone was fit or unfit to vote. As far as Johnson was concerned, all you needed to vote was American citizenship and the registration of your name on an electoral list. No form of hindrance to this would be tolerated by the law courts.

The impact of this act was dramatic. By the end of 1966, only 4 out of the traditional 13 Southern states, had less than 50% of African Americans registered to vote. By 1968, even hard-line Mississippi had 59% of African Americans registered. In the longer term, far more African Americans were elected into public office.

The Act was the boost that the civil rights cause needed to move it swiftly along and Johnson has to take full credit for this. As Martin Luther King had predicted in earlier years, demonstrations served a good purpose but real change would only come through the power of Federal government.

Congress has repeatedly extended the requirement: for 5 years in 1970, 7 years in 1975, and 25 years in 1982. Congress renewed the act in 2006 after holding extensive hearings on the persistence of racial discrimination at the polls, again extending provisions of the Voting Rights Act for 25 years.

The Supreme Court struck down section 4 of the Voting Rights Act in June 2013, ruling that section of the VRA is outdated. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion saying, "discrimination against minority voters may have been pervasive in the 1960s when [section 4 of] the law was passed, but nearly 50 years later, things have changed dramatically.”

Under Justice Roberts reasoning, the law was still punishing states and local governments covered under section 4 for discriminatory practices the majority of Justices argued ended years ago. Section 4 of the VRA specified all or parts of 16 states and local jurisdictions, with long histories of overt racial discrimination in voting, mostly in the South, that were required to get approval from the federal government for any proposed change to their voting laws, as specified under VRA section 5.

The section 5 process, known as preclearance, stopped hundreds of discriminatory new laws from taking effect, and deterred lawmakers from introducing countless more. Without section 4, the section 5 is useless. Chief Justice Roberts, writing the 5-4 majority opinion, invalidated section 4 arguing, “today’s statistics tell an entirely different story.” In fact, today’s statistics tell a story little changed from the 1960s.

A comprehensive new study by a historian of the Voting Rights Act provides a fresh trove of empirical evidence that refutes Chief Justice Roberts' assertion. The study by J. Morgan Kousser, a professor of history and social science at the California Institute of Technology, examines more than 4,100 voting-rights cases, Justice Department inquiries, settlements and changes to laws in response to the threat of lawsuits around the country where the final result favored minority voters.

It found that from 1957 until 2013, more than 90 percent of these legal “events” occurred in jurisdictions that were required to preclear their voting changes. The study also provides evidence that the number of successful voting-rights suits has gone down in recent years, not because there is less discrimination, but because several Supreme Court decisions have made them harder to win.

Full Article: Voting Rights, by the Numbers –

After the Supreme Court struck down section four of the Voting Rights Act, Congress took no action to restore those enforcement provisions while the Republican Party controlled the U.S. House. On December 6, 2019 the U.S. House under Democratic Party control passed a package of bills called the Voting Rights Advancement Act. The act is aimed at restoring protections of the Voting Rights Act rolled back by a key Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act would, among other things, update the formula used to determine which states must preclear their voter registration practices, require public notice for voting registration changes, and allow the attorney general to send federal observers anywhere in the U.S.

The package passed 228-187, with GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick joining all Democrats in favor of the measure.

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) — a former Freedom Rider who spoke at the March on Washington in 1963 — sat in the chair to gavel in the final vote, prompting a round of applause from his colleagues when it passed.

The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Terri Sewell, whose Alabama district includes Selma’s infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge, called the bill’s impending passage “incredibly personal and special to me and my district.” Sewell has introduced the bill in each of the last three Congresses.

“We protect the legacy of the foot soldiers of the voting rights movement” with the package, the Alabama Democrat said in a news briefing before the vote, which she argued ensures “that voting equality is alive and well today.”

She singled out for praise Lewis, one such “foot soldier,” who stood by her side during the briefing. “So many of us walk the halls of Congress because of this legislation,” she said, referring to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, before telling Lewis: “To say thank you ... doesn’t seem adequate.”

In brief remarks at the event, Lewis called voting “the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in our Democratic society,” but said Friday’s vote came in the midst of an “ongoing struggle to redeem the soul of America, and we’re not there yet."

“While literacy tests and poll tax no longer exist, certain states and local jurisdictions have passed laws that are modern-day barriers to voting,” Sewell said on the floor before the vote. “That is why it is critically important that we fully restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act by passing H.R. 4.”

Speaking on the House floor before the vote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi argued that the legislation merely made “improvements insisted upon” by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts in the 2013 decision, Shelby County v. Holder. House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) said the bill restores the “central enforcement tool of that critical statute” in reference to the landmark civil rights legislation.

Republicans have largely dismissed the legislation as a messaging bill, and House Judiciary ranking member Doug Collins (R-Ga.) pointed out that the White House has threatened to veto the measure, though he added he was willing to work with Democrats on other improvements.

“We do not in this body vote on ideas. We do not vote on thoughts. We vote on words on paper. And the words on paper here do not fulfill what is being said about this bill,” Collins said on the floor prior to the vote.

Still, Republicans took pains to emphasize that their opposition is not to voting rights on the whole, calling the package an attempt at forcing control over state and local elections into the hands of the federal government.

The Voting Rights Advancement Act is a key plank in House Democrats’ legislative agenda — one of a series of bills they campaigned on in their successful effort to take back the House in 2018.

And the package is one of a number of election-related bills the House passed during 2019, following its sweeping package of election and campaign finance reforms approved early in the year at the beginning of the session, and a foreign election interference bill passed in the fall of 2019.

Democratic leaders have promised to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act as soon as the Party gains full control of Congress.

But the Voting Rights legislation, like many of the other marquee bills the House passed in 2019 tackling gun violence, climate change and election interference, will be ignored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has boasted about being the “grim reaper” for Democrats’ legislative priorities.

“We have 400 bills sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi has repeated reminded the American voters. “And he keeps saying, ‘All they do is impeach’ — no, we have 400 bills, 275 of them are bipartisan bills.”

While Republicans control the U.S. Senate, the voting rights of millions of citizens hang in limbo. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words continue to remind us that struggle for freedom and the right to life liberty and the pursuit of happiness is an ongoing struggle.

"I Have a Dream" speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s address at the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. Washington, D.C.

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