"I voted" stickers are handed out in front of the Lancaster County Government Center on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.


Lancaster County residents joined fellow Americans in celebrating the life and legacy of civil rights giant the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday. (Because of the latest COVID-19 surge, many events were held virtually.) King’s nonviolent movement spurred Congress to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin, and banned racial segregation in public accommodations. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which eliminated barriers that kept African Americans and other people of color from voting. A crucial component of the Voting Rights Act was dismantled by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.

Lancaster’s Crispus Attucks Community Center held its 34th annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast Monday. Its theme: “The Fierce Urgency of Now.”

It was apt.

King spoke those words as part of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., in August 1963.

Those working today against King’s aims — for access to the ballot, for broader racial justice — like to quote his stated wish that his children someday not be judged by their skin color. That particular quote is willfully misinterpreted as a get-out-of-responsibility-for-racism-free card. It’s used to argue against teaching children the truth about our nation’s past, to insist that King would have us ignore racism.

Those who make these fallacious arguments should read other of King’s writings, including his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and his “Give Us the Ballot” speech. Or they at least should read the entirety of the speech he delivered at the August 1963 March on Washington.

King said the marchers had “come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

Aiko Bethea, an equity consultant who delivered the keynote talk at the Crispus Attucks breakfast, noted that we “are paying the price of being too late every day and every second.”

Certainly, a price is paid by those who wait hours in long lines to vote, because there are too few polling places in their neighborhoods and voting hours have been cut; a price is paid, too, by those who have been disenfranchised in voter roll purges conducted without safeguards.

This is why, according to King’s children, making real the promises of democracy means passing new voting rights legislation now.

Martin Luther King III called on President Joe Biden and Congress to “restore the very voting rights protections my father and countless other civil rights leaders bled to secure.”

States across the U.S. are considering and passing bills that seek to make it harder for people, especially people of color, to vote. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, more than 440 bills with provisions that restrict voting access were introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions.

Thus the fierce urgency of now to pass voting rights legislation in Congress.

And hence the cry — “no celebration without legislation” — which was echoed Monday at the Crispus Attucks breakfast as well as across social media.

In remarks opening the breakfast, WGAL News 8 anchor Danielle Woods mentioned Martin Luther King III’s use of that phrase, “no celebration without legislation.”

She noted: “Mr. King went on to say ‘Congress must deliver for voting rights by passing legislation. We can’t, in good conscience, celebrate the MLK legacy without action.’ So today, as we commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. King, we invite you to consider how you can join us in working in a fiercely urgent way to create the equitable and just community we all deserve.”

It’s an invitation we all should accept.

And we should start by considering urging our representatives in Washington to support voting rights legislation.

Last week, the U.S. House passed the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, a combined bill whose aims include expanding early voting and voter registration; strengthening voting by mail; protecting against faulty voter purges; and making Election Day a national holiday. As the Brennan Center explains, it also would restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 “to full strength, in part by once again requiring states with histories of voter discrimination to receive approval from the Department of Justice or a federal court before enacting voting changes.”

The bill passed in a 220-203 vote. Republican U.S. Reps. Lloyd Smucker of Lancaster County and Scott Perry of York County voted against the bill.

It is slated for consideration today in the U.S. Senate.

The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act faces an obstacle in the Senate that was familiar to King: the filibuster, which can be used to block action on a bill that doesn’t have 60 votes.

As Kevin Ressler, president and CEO of United Way of Lancaster County, noted in a column published by LNP | LancasterOnline on Sunday, the “filibuster’s most notorious usage in American history was to support Jim Crow laws, and to prevent anti-lynching bills and voting rights legislation from becoming law.” Ressler noted that the filibuster was not part of the Constitution; it emerged in the 19th century and so does not deserve the reverence of permanence.

King spoke out against the filibuster, too: “I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting,” he said in 1963. “They won’t let the majority senators vote. And certainly they wouldn’t want the majority of people to vote, because they know they do not represent the majority of the American people. In fact, they represent, in their own states, a very small minority.”

This remains true nearly six decades later.

In his “Give Us the Ballot” speech in 1957, King called voting rights “an eternal moral issue which may well determine the destiny of our nation.” And he called the denial of voting rights a “tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.”

This was true then. And it’s true now.

No matter our political party, we should believe in the right to vote. And we should insist that those who represent us in Congress believe in it, too.


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