MLK Warned Us About Moderates. Are We Listening?

The anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington should be an occasion for escalating the non-violent fight for voting rights.

Many Americans will be commemorating the 58th anniversary the 1963 March on Washington this weekend. There will be plenty of reflections and recitations about the “I Have a Dream” speech. However, I find myself drawn to the words that King wrote just a few months ago. King’s letter from Birmingham Jail is what I keep thinking about.

There are many lessons to be learned from the Letter. However, my current struggle to expand and protect voting rights forces me to pay close attention to King’s statements regarding nonviolent civil disobedience. I believe King would be convinced that we should intensify our efforts to address this issue by using the same civil disobedience that was used in 1963 and other civil rights eras.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was passed by the House of Representatives earlier this week. This Act now joins the For the People Act to make up the second piece of voting rights legislation currently pending in Congress. The filibuster allows senators to block legislation’s passage and even to block discussion. Both are facing obstacles in the Senate.

Many have written extensively about why the filibuster should end or be modified to “carve away” voting rights, or create a talking filibuster. The 1963 March on Washington demanded that the filibuster be removed from the list of demands. This explicitly stated that it should not be allowed for the filibuster to block policies that were being marched by hundreds of thousands of people that day. King spoke out about how the filibuster was being used against progress on civil rights. It is not necessary to speculate on his position regarding the filibuster.

Senators Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Silena, and others might be well advised to refer to Dr. King’s explanation of just and unjust laws. This included the observation, “Sometimes a law is just in its face, but unjust in its application.”

The argument is that the GOP, along with President Biden, will continue to push through harmful legislation without a filibuster. They’ll also repeal voting rights whenever they control both the White House and the Senate. This is similar to arguments King rejected in his response to critics who claimed that the movement’s actions “even though peaceful” should be condemned. King also asked: “Isn’t this like condemning someone who robbed because he had money that precipitated the crime of robbery?”

It’s a strange idea to think that future abuses of power by Mitch McConnell or the GOP could only be caused today by Democratic efforts. In their quest for power, Senate Republicans have already shown their willingness to amend the filibuster rules and were able to take three Supreme Court seats. Additionally, GOP state legislatures already abuse power by passing voter suppression bills across the country. The act of robbery, to use King’s analogy, is already being committed on a daily basis.

The crucial question is not whether or not the filibuster should end (it should), but which tactics are needed to make it happen. It is clear that only an increase in nonviolent civil disobedience, on the scale that led to the Selma to-Montgomery march, will produce the pressure necessary to pass voting rights legislation.

King wrote this 1963 letter to his wife:

“Nonviolent direct actions seek to create a crisis and foster tension so that a community that has refused to negotiate is forced into confronting the issue. It attempts to make the issue so dramatic that it cannot be ignored”.

In fact, we have seen many attempts to create such tension over the last two months. My organization, along with dozens of others, launched a 10-day Freedom Ride for Voting Rights in June to call for more direct action regarding voting rights and the District of Columbia’s statehood. The Poor Peoples Campaign has been leading protests and marches throughout West Virginia, Texas, and the District of Columbia for several weeks. This led to hundreds of arrests. 26 arrests were made at Reagan National Airport by Until Freedom.

Some elected officials have joined civil disobedience. Most notably, Texas state legislators were threatened with arrest for breaking the quorum. They came to Washington to express their concern about federal action and faced threats of arrest. The Black Women’s Roundtable organized civil disobedience in a Senate building, which led to the arrest of many protestors including Joyce Beatty (chair of the Congressional Black Caucus). Soon after, following the lead of their chair, several other members of the CBC were also arrested, as was I.

It’s also worth noting that Rep. Cori Bush of CBC was the one who led the most successful civil disobedience act of the summer, sleeping on Capitol steps to demand an eviction moratorium.

To win the fight for voting rights, we need to see more than what we have seen so far. It is necessary to increase civil disobedience at three levels. First, the number of cities or counties in which actions are being taken; second, the frequency of such actions; and finally, the degree of disruption caused by such actions. Voting rights supporters must show that they are ready to accept being ungovernable until all bills are passed.

One may ask, “why go to such lengths to reform the filibuster when it’s just a Senate procedure?” The civil rights movement heard similar arguments from those who said, “It’s just a water fountain,” or “It’s just a lunch counter.” In the case of the filibuster, there may not be a sign in the Senate rules that reads “Negroes Only,” but a review of the filibuster’s history suggests that no single issue has been the subject of filibuster more often than matters of civil rights.

It was used in civil rights bills from 1874, Strom Thurmond’s 1957 record-setting filibuster, through anti-lynching legislation throughout the 1900s, and Rand Paul’s filibuster last year of an antilynching bill. Although the Jim Crow-era filibuster is not top of mind for all Black Americans, the way it was used to affect our most fundamental rights, such as voting and our more basic right to Live, presents an existential threat that more than justifies the use of civil disobedience.

Some will argue that calling for civil disobedience to be escalated in support of voting rights would be considered extremist. King’s letter to critics is instructive. He reminded them that Jesus was an extremist for love and that many of the most influential U.S. presidents were also extremists based on key principles. This fact should be reflected by Joe Biden. King’s letter taught us that there are many types of extremism and that the extremism in love can defeat the extremism in terror and hatred, domestically or internationally.

Shouldn’t a country, which was literally born out of extremism and vandalism against tea be held in higher regard for extreme civil disobedience? Instead, basic forms of civil disobedience, including those against tea vandalism, are often considered rude or inexcusable and increasingly treated illegally, as demonstrated by Florida’s recent “anti-protest” bills.

These bills are extreme and remind us of King’s key point: “The question not whether or not we will become extremists but what kind of extremists will we be?” Extremism to pursue justice must not be confused with extremism to perpetuate injustice. What I am suggesting is not the same as what was displayed at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6. Its premise was fiction and not factual, its goal was to oppress rather than to liberate, hate was its leading emotion, and violence was its form.

This issue is urgent and we don’t have time to waste. King warned that the Senate would “become an ally to the forces of social stagnation.” This is our current situation. While the Senate continues its recess and deliberates, the state legislatures continue to pass laws and move forward with corrupt redistricting plans. These maps will continue to distort and embed gerrymandered areas, and they will determine electoral results for decades.

If someone claims to support voting rights but doesn’t support an escalation in nonviolent civil disobedienceence, it is most likely that they are the same type of moderate King blasted in his letter. This moment demands more.