MLK Day 2022: No Celebration Without Legislation

The best way to honor Dr. King is to pass federal voting rights legislation

By Ramón Cruz

January 17, 2022


Photo by AP Photo/JT

This Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Dr. King’s family is asking us to honor his legacy not just through the usual commemorations and acts of community service, but by doing something more ambitious: Pass federal legislation to protect the freedom to vote that Dr. King fought so hard for. As in King’s day, that freedom is under siege by those who cling to white supremacy and dream of minority rule. As Andrea Waters King, the wife of Martin Luther King III, told CNN last month, “We cannot simply in good faith celebrate him or celebrate that legacy with this current attack on access to the ballot box." 

The story of American democracy is full of attempts to expand the franchise beyond the white, propertied men whom the founders first gave the right to vote—as well as vicious backlashes to those efforts. We are in the throes of just such a backlash, which has left our democracy in a fragile place. About a year ago, a white supremacist mob stormed the US Capitol to try to stop the peaceful transfer of power to President Joe Biden. Many Republican elected representatives have refused to support attempts at holding anyone accountable for the attack or even support the investigation into how the attack happened. 

Many of those same Republicans are also busy working at the state level to restrict the right to vote. They are changing state laws around the country to make it harder for people of color, young people, and low-income people to vote—and also make it easier for partisan politicians to overturn election results and intimidate voters and election workers. Republican-dominated state legislatures are drawing new congressional district maps that will lock their party into power for at least the next decade. 

Out-organizing or out-litigating these anti-democratic forces is not the solution to the unprecedented size and scale of voter suppression and electoral-map manipulation we face right now. We need to pass the federal voting rights legislation now before Congress: the combined For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (now known as the Freedom to Vote: John R Lewis Act) and the Protecting Our Democracy Act. If passed, these critical federal laws will preempt the scores of bad state bills that could otherwise keep millions of people from voting in upcoming elections, put in place more checks and balances, prevent presidential abuse of power as we saw under the Trump administration, and prevent future attempts to undermine and attack our elections. 

Creating an inclusive, fair, and just democracy is crucial for the Sierra Club to bring about the large-scale change needed to address the climate crisis and protect our lands, air, water, wildlife, and communities. As a Puerto Rican, I’ve seen how a lack of democracy paves the way toward environmental destruction and negligence.  

Puerto Ricans can’t cast ballots for the presidency, and our only representative in Congress can’t actually vote on legislation. That makes it easier for polluters to get away with treating Puerto Rico like a sacrifice zone. When major climate disaster Hurricane Maria hit, the Trump administration felt entitled to refuse our calls for help. The former president made a show of passing out paper towels while denying Puerto Rico the breadth of emergency aid that Houston had received less than a month before in the wake of deadly Hurricane Harvey. We need a robust representative democracy to ensure that our demands for clean, healthy environments and meaningful action on the climate crisis are heard in the halls of power.  

While majorities of Americans support the voting rights bills before Congress, it only takes 41 Senate Republicans, representing just 21 percent of the US population, to block those bills’ passage using the filibuster. Just last week, President Biden and Vice President Harris for the first time called for a change to the filibuster in order to pass these critical democracy bills. By refusing to allow changes to, or the elimination of, the filibuster, Democratic senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona have prevented the Democratic majority in the Senate from pushing the bills through.  

This Martin Luther King Day, Senators Manchin and Sinema have a choice. They can choose to preserve the Jim Crow relic known as the filibuster, or they can choose to preserve millions of Americans’ voting rights. They can allow changes to the filibuster, enabling these crucial pieces of voting rights legislation to pass—and, in the process, put themselves on the right side of history alongside civil rights leaders, suffragettes, and all others who fought to make real the promise of our democracy. This is their legacy.

Send a message to your senators today urging them to pass the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act.