Dec 15, 2021 - Politics & Policy

MLK family: "No celebration without legislation"

Martin Luther King III, Arndrea King and their daughter, Yolanda Renee King, are seen at the federal memorial to MLK Jr.
Arndrea Waters King (left), Yolanda Renee King and Martin Luther King III visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on MLK Day in January 2020. Photo: Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The family of Martin Luther King Jr. is urging the public not to celebrate his legacy as a civil and voting rights activist on MLK Day next month if Congress hasn't passed new national voting rights protections, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: This no-celebration-without-legislation approach is a unique form of protest, and puts pressure not just on Republicans, but also Democrats, who've been reluctant to eliminate the filibuster to pass pending bills.

  • "Every generation has to earn its freedom, and so this is a form of re-acquiring the freedom," Martin Luther King III told Axios. "We shouldn't have to do it. But we do have to do it, and we are going to do it, because the voting rights of people are far too important."
  • His wife, Arndrea Waters King, said in the same interview: "We're hoping that the administration will use their full power the same way in which they use the full power to deliver for bridges."

Driving the news: Preserving or expanding voting rights has become a focal point for Democrats, as Republican legislatures across the country have enacted a slew of voting changes following the 2020 presidential election.

  • They include cutbacks to voting access and gerrymandering of congressional district lines to perpetuate the GOP’s state and national power for the next decade.

What we're watching: In the coming weeks, Martin Luther King III, Arndrea Waters King and their daughter, Yolanda Renee King, will mobilize faith leaders and civil rights groups to withhold traditional MLK celebrations if Congress doesn't push through federal voter protections.

  • The King family will be in Arizona on Jan. 15, MLK's birthday, and at the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 17, the federal holiday commemorating MLK Day.
  • They're urging voters to reach out to their senators about the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.
  • The first has been passed by the House, and the second has been pushed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in the Senate.

What they're saying: Referring to lawmakers' work on passing the infrastructure bill, Arndrea Waters King said, "they were not going to run away from a very challenging issue, and we want to see that same muscle, that same might, that same power on this issue."

  • "As a mother, I can't help but think that [MLK] would be surprised and possibly a bit disappointed that not only his four little children, but now his grandchild who is not so little anymore, have to stand and fight in a lot of ways [for] what they were standing and fighting for."

Between the lines: Republican legislatures in 19 states have passed 33 laws limiting voting rights to reshape the nation’s electoral system, with more teed up for the new year.

  • Among the proposals put forward by the GOP are a requirement that ballots be hand-counted as well as tightened residency requirements and "routine maintenance" of voter rolls — which voting rights advocates say would lead to more frequent purges of eligible voters.
  • Meanwhile, attempts to pass federal voting rights legislation in Congress have been met with uniform opposition from Senate Republicans.
  • In a split, 50-50 chamber, that's made it impossible to overcome the 60-vote filibuster threshold for passing major legislation.

Be smart: The gridlock has prompted talk of scrapping the filibuster, even for the narrow case of allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a tie-breaking 51st Democratic vote.

  • That would allow the measure to pass with a simple majority.
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