Shortly after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, my father, Martin Luther King Jr., visited President Lyndon Johnson alongside other civil rights leaders and urged him to support the Voting Rights Act. President Johnson was reluctant. He had used up all his political capital on civil rights, he said. He had no power to push through a bill to secure the right to vote for Black Americans.
Dad and his allies weren’t giving up. Their response was to go back to the South, mobilize the people and “go get him some power.” They sparked massive mobilizations for voting rights across the South: among them the Selma to Montgomery march, immortalized on «Bloody Sunday.» In its aftermath, President Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act, which was signed exactly 56 years ago.
Today though, the rights it enshrined are under threat from dozens of voter suppression laws being passed in states across the country. To resist them we have to understand, like Dad did, that power doesn’t just come from a single election, or negotiations in the Senate. It comes from us: everyday people who demand justice and equality in America.
We won’t stop demanding justice
I was reminded of this last week, as my wife, Arndrea, and I joined the Rev. Al Sharpton and Texas Democrats in meetings on Capitol Hill. We asked members and senators to fight to pass the For the People Act and the the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to protect the sanctity of our votes. We demanded equal congressional representation for the pver 700,000 residents of majority Black and brown Washington, D.C. And we called on them to bypass the filibuster – that old Jim Crow relic – to secure these basic constitutional rights for all Americans. The message we heard was that once again, they need the power of the people to mobilize and push Congress to pass this vital legislation.
Later this month, when we commemorate the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington, we’ll be bringing that power to Washington and to demonstrations all over the country. Our demand is that Congress act to defend our voting rights and secure our democracy for the next generation.
For some of us, it’s discouraging to know this fight isn’t yet won. In 2020, millions of us took to the streets for the largest demonstrations in American history. We held panels and made speeches, we registered thousands of new voters, and more than 81 million of us cast our votes to sweep President Joe Biden and Democrats into the White House and Congress. Some of us will ask why, after all that, it’s still our duty to fight.
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At these moments I look back on what my mother often said, “Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.”
She taught me that for every step forward there will always be backlash, but that it’s our duty to keep pushing forward. Less than three weeks after the 1963 March on Washington, when activists like my father were riding high on hope, a domestic terrorist bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four precious little girls. Still, activists stood up and organized Freedom Summer the next year, sending hundreds of volunteers to the South to register Black voters and paving the way for the Civil Rights Act.
We need courage from our leaders
Now, less than a year after Black and brown voters cast the deciding votes in the biggest election of our lives, the backlash has been swift and brutal. Republican-controlled states are creating new voting restrictions to block Black and brown people from the polls. Many are openly discussing how to break up majority-minority districts through redistricting.
In my home state of Georgia, the legislature has even given itself power to take over local elections and overturn results they dislike.
That backlash is a reminder of how far we’ve come, how much we have to defend and how far we have to go as a nation. We don’t have the luxury to sit down or leave the fight. This moment calls us instead to lift our voices and show once again that the power lies in our hands. We have to call on our leaders – Democrats and Republicans – to act with courage and moral conviction to defend our democracy. We have to demand that when they quote my father, or say they loved John Lewis, they show that love in their actions.
Don’t let rights slip away: Pass ‘Manchin Plus’ voting and election protection with or without Republicans
That will be our demand when we gather in Washington this month, and we won’t stop. The world we are called to build – one based on love, sister and brotherhood, justice and peace – will not be won in a single summer of protest or an autumn of campaigning. It will be won in a lifetime of work, fueled by the power of our conviction, and we will then be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLK III on Voting Rights Act: Find courage to fight Republican attacks