Lawmakers Shouldn’t Praise Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While Restricting Voting Rights

Lauren Lluveras | Teen Vogue

In this op-ed, writer Lauren Lluveras, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis, explains how voting rights are still under restriction today, as they were in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s time.

On March 21, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. and 3,200 marchers embarked on a third attempt to complete a 54-mile route from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. By the end, this time, the crowd totaled 25,000, but activists Jimmie Lee JacksonJames ReebViola Gregg Liuzzo, and Jonathan Myrick Daniels were all killed while participating.

Marchers, including U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), endured violence and risked death to ensure people of color could exercise their right to vote. As we honor King’s legacy this week, it’s important to consider what we’re fighting against: namely, how access to voting is still very much under attack.

Though in theory, the 15th Amendment secured these rights in 1870, events like those that occurred in Ocoee, Florida, in 1920 discouraged black Americans from attempting to vote: In Ocoee, a lynch mob killed July Perry for registering local black citizens before setting fire to black homes across the community. As many as 500 black people were forced to flee the violence, and still others perished or were lynched.

The Voting Rights Act was signed into law in August 1965, the same year as the violent Selma to Montgomery march, and it prohibited these practices and put recalcitrant states and counties under federal oversight, outlawing literacy tests too. But in 2013, a provision of the Voting Rights Act was overturned by the Supreme Court and, according to The Nation, nearly 400 restrictions have since been put in place at the state level that make it more difficult to vote, particularly for people of color. The voting restrictions we see today are more subtle than restrictions of MLK’s time, but the effect still amounts to disenfranchisement.

On the state level, voter laws that specifically target and disproportionately impact young people, women, and people of color have gone into effect. Tactics include requiring proof of citizenship to register, limiting early voting, restricting voter registration drives, depriving ex-felons the right to vote, purging voter rolls, and mandating government-issued photo IDs to cast a ballot. Some localities have intentionally made it more difficult for people of color to be elected to city councils by changing election dates to those when people of color were less likely to turn out (like in Augusta, Georgia) and by mathematically disfavoring the votes of residents in neighborhoods mostly inhabited by people of color (as was the case in Pasadena, Texas). Fourteen states put new voting restrictions into place just in time for the 2016 presidential election.

Across the U.S., there’s also widespread racially gerrymandered redistricting. Court-issued protections — like a federal panel’s January 9 finding that North Carolina’s partisan-gerrymandered districts violate the Equal Protection Clause — offer glimmers of hope. But they don’t go far enough.

Today, the U.S. Constitution still lacks a general provision guaranteeing the right to cast a ballot, allowing voting practices to come under the will and interests of divisive and racist state politics.

Still, politicians who work against voters participate in symbolic gestures to carry on the legacy of Dr. King and all those who worked alongside him. For example, on January 15, the White House tweeted out a message from President Trump stating, “Dr. King’s dream is our dream. It is the American Dream.” This sentiment stands in stark contrast to President Trump’s treatment of communities of color, including his latest comments about the countries participating in the visa lottery program and the temporary protected status program. Trump has also taken a number of steps toward advancing voter suppression tactics, such as forming the now-dissolved Commission on Election Integrity; appointing Jeff Sessions (whose record of voter suppression prompted a letter from Coretta Scott King opposing his federal judge nomination, in 1986) as attorney general; and pegging Thomas Brunell (who wrote a book defending gerrymandering) for Census Bureau leadership.

Vice President Mike Pence also memorialized Dr. King and his vision for an equitable America with a tweet Sunday afternoon, though he headed the president’s Commission on Election Integrity and was accused of voter suppression by a progressive advocacy group during his tenure as governor of Indiana (his deputy chief of staff denied the accusation). State politicians with histories of endorsing policies that can result in voter suppression, but who commemorated the holiday by quoting King anyway, included Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), who is a congressional leader on restrictive voter policies. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), who supported shortening early voting in Florida and purging the state’s voter rolls, sent out a series of Tweets about King’s vision for America on Monday. Pennsylvania State Representative Mike Turzai, who has openly discussed the ways restrictive voter ID laws benefit his party, also paid tribute to Dr. King.

If our nation is really invested in embracing the ideals of “liberty and justice for all,” we can preserve that possibility by revising and restoring Section IV of the Voting Rights Act, which, until it was invalidated by the Supreme Court in 2013, provided a formula to determine which states should be subject to federal oversight before passing electoral reform. In the meantime, states that want to expand democracy can take certain steps, like automatically registering eligible voters, adding early voting opportunities, adopting same-day voter registration, and increasing the number of onsite election workers and polling machines at voting locations. Until we preserve and protect the ability to participate fully in American civic life for all citizens, we aren’t honoring the sacrifices made by civil rights activists like King.

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