Rev. William Barber II: Voting Rights Not Just a Black IssueBreaking News
Rev. William J. Barber II is president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. He is author of We Are Called to Be a Movement.
Ahead of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, President Biden visited the grave of Dr. King in Atlanta and gave the angriest speech of his presidency, insisting that the Senate has a moral obligation to protect voting rights. After months of delay, Senate Leader Chuck Schumer finally moved to at least force open debate on federal voting rights legislation this week. As the nation honors Dr. King and the civil rights movement’s legacy, Democrats are hoping against the longest odds that they can unite to push back against an assault on democracy that the President calls “Jim Crow 2.0.”
But America’s memory of Jim Crow has been distorted by a political culture that pays lip service to Dr. King while forgetting his vision of a democracy that works for all Americans. From the Montgomery bus boycott to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Dr. King was a spokesperson for the Black-led freedom movement that was determined to end Jim Crow segregation in America. But Dr. King was also clear that Black Americans did not simply want to be integrated into a burning house. They organized with a broad and diverse coalition of Americans to challenge the basic contradictions that threatened the promise of democracy for all people. The Beloved Community that Dr. King preached and organized toward wasn’t just an America where Black, white and brown could sit down in a restaurant together. It was the hope of a political system where the Black, white and brown masses could vote together for leaders who serve the common good.
Today, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce opposes both voting rights laws and living wages. They back Senators Kyrsten Sinema, Joe Manchin and their Republican colleagues in an effort to normalize the subversion of democracy and make voting rights the special interest of minority groups. But they don’t separate their money, so we surely shouldn’t separate and bifurcate our movement demands for a democracy that works for everyday people. Voting rights are about power to write policy that impacts our daily lives and power to control the purse strings of the U.S. budget and over $21 trillion in gross domestic product.
When Dr. King spoke at the end of the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, he noted that as long as the Southern aristocracy could pit poor white people against poor Black people with the idea of race, they could prevent people from joining together in a democratic society to reconstruct an economy that works for everyone. “Thus,” Dr. King concluded, “the threat of the free exercise of the ballot by the Negro and the white masses alike resulted in the establishment of a segregated society… That’s what happened when the Negro and white masses of the South threatened to unite and build a great society.” Jim Crow always had a purpose: preventing the multiethnic voting coalition that could create a more equal society.
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