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MLK’s legacy, today’s voting rights challenge

Those who fear the will of voters use bills instead of billy clubs, but the impact remains the same.

In this March 7, 1965, file photo, state troopers swinging billy clubs to break up a civil rights voting march in Selma, Ala.unknown/Associated Press

“So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind — it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact — I can only submit to the edict of others.” Martin Luther King Jr., May 17, 1957.

It was the third anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, a day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. called “a joyous daybreak to end the long night of human captivity.” Yet the promise of Brown, the promise of an end to segregated schools — or buses or lunch counters — remained a promise unfulfilled for Black Americans. And so that May 17 rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was meant to remind the rest of a complacent nation and its political power structure that the key to that “dream of freedom” would come only through the ballot box.


“Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights,” King intoned. “Give us the ballot, and we will fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill. "

It would be another eight years before President Lyndon B. Johnson, shamed into action by the attack on civil rights activists in Selma, Ala., would sign the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6, 1965.

“This law covers many pages,” Johnson said in the Capitol Rotunda that day, “but the heart of the act is plain. Wherever, by clear and objective standards, states and counties are using regulations, or laws, or tests to deny the right to vote, then they will be struck down.”

In the time warp that is the national political debate, voting rights are again front and center — the divide not just over race but also over party and the poisonous influence of Trumpism. No longer are prospective voters required to pass a literacy test, like this task from Louisiana’s 1963 test: “Write every other word in this first line and print every third word in same line but capitalize the fifth word that you write.”


But a half-century from now, will today’s efforts to keep people from voting look any less cynical than those of the bigots who feared the voting power of Black people in the ’60s?

Today the voter suppression weapons of choice are stricter voter ID requirements, reduced polling hours or locations, shortened windows for mail-in ballots, or making it more difficult for handicapped voters or those with language difficulties to access help. Last year, at least 19 states passed some 34 laws aimed at restricting voting, according to the Brennan Center. And more are teed up for action in state legislatures for this year. Lawmakers in some states (among them Wisconsin, Florida, and Tennessee) still want to “investigate” the legitimate results of the 2020 presidential election.

Invoking the legacy of King days before the nation would celebrate the civil rights leader’s birthday, President Biden went to Atlanta, calling it “the cradle of civil rights,” and made an impassioned plea for passage of two voting rights bills that were languishing on Capitol Hill — the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.


“The right to vote and have that vote count, it is democracy’s threshold liberty,” Biden told the crowd at an outdoor rally. “Without it, nothing is possible. But with it, anything is possible.”

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, named for the former congressman who led the march over the Edmund Pettus Bridge that “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, would allow the Justice Department to review certain state voting laws to prevent voter discrimination. The broader Freedom to Vote Act would create national standards for voting by mail and early voting and expand voter registration, including election-day registration. The House of Representatives passed a measure drawing on both bills Thursday night, but the Senate has yet to take them up and currently appears to lack sufficient votes to pass the measure.

“Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch,” Biden declared. “I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies foreign, yes, and domestic!

“And so the question is where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?”

Where indeed, as voting rights continue to slip away.

On this day, King’s memory will be invoked at breakfasts and celebrations, services and concerts. But no tribute could be as appropriate or as lasting as if the Senate renewed this nation’s vow to preserve, protect, and defend the right to vote for all Americans against this new breed of enemy — those who would suppress voters not with billy clubs but with bills.


This is our nation’s new “give us the ballot” moment.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.