The Republicans proclaiming their reverence Monday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. make up an all-star roster in the effort to undermine voting rights, a denial of a civil right that disproportionately disenfranchises Black people in the United States.
Democrats are currently pushing the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a pair of bills aimed at beefing up federal protections for voting rights in the face of a rash of state-level efforts to restrict access to the ballot. President Biden promised such a bill as one of his first acts in office, but Rolling Stone reported Monday that his allies have been frustrated by a White House effort that they found lacking. The bill’s fate now hinges on a plan to carve loophole for pro-voting rights bill into the filibuster. The legislative tactic has a long history of undermining progress on civil rights, but Democratic senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have said they are opposed to amending it.
None of this would be necessary, however, if Republicans were on board with ensuring that every eligible American has the right to vote and access to the ballot. Enter Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican who has unified in his caucus into near-unanimous opposition to the voting rights bill, successfully dooming the federal effort. After Biden spoke passionately in Georgia about the need to protect the right to vote, McConnell last week said the president had given “a deliberately divisive speech that was designed to pull our country further apart.”
Here’s what McConnell had to say Monday on a federal holiday commemorating King Jr., a man who dedicated his life to expanding civil rights before he was murdered at the age of 39.
Nearly 60 years since the March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message echoes as powerfully as it did that day. His legacy inspires us to celebrate and keep building upon the remarkable progress our great nation has made toward becoming a more perfect union.
— Leader McConnell (@LeaderMcConnell) January 17, 2022
Former Vice President Mike Pence wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post on Jan. 14 that grouped the push to provide federal protections for voting rights with the riot of Jan. 6, 2021, when Donald Trump supporters ransacked the U.S. Capitol in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Democrats’ “plan to end the filibuster to allow Democrats to pass a bill nationalizing our elections would offend the Founders’ intention that states conduct elections just as much as what some of our most ardent supporters would have had me do one year ago,” Pence wrote, presumably yet improbably with a straight face.
Here’s what Pence had to say about King on Monday, 72 hours after comparing a pro-civil rights push — including legislation named after the late civil rights icon John Lewis — to an insurrection, while also defending the restriction of civil rights on the grounds of states rights.
Today on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we honor the memory of a remarkable man and a giant of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged our Nation to live up to the highest ideals of our founding and his memory will continue to inspire generations to come. pic.twitter.com/8fDenr4Dw9
— Mike Pence (@Mike_Pence) January 17, 2022
While federal Republicans fight protections for voting rights, state-level GOP officials are actively pushing legislation to restrict ballot access. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp has been on the forefront of this effort for years. He was Georgia’s secretary of state up until 2018, overseeing election rules while also running for governor against Stacey Abrams. (He resigned from that post two days after winning the race.) After the election, Abrams’ voting rights group sued the state over the election system, accusing officials (and implicitly Kemp) of maintaining an election system that violates the constitutional rights of voters of color.
Kemp lapsed into a defense of civil rights in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, when he rejected Trump’s push to overturn the results in Georgia — which went for Biden over Trump in the first presidential victory for a Democrat there since 1992. But in the aftermath of the election, he and his fellow Republicans in March passed legislation that will make it more difficult for many Georgians to vote. There is, as Kemp stated, no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Georgia or elsewhere in the United States, but Kemp’s stated rationale was that he was “putting hardworking Georgians first starts with ensuring that your voice is heard and restoring each and every citizen’s confidence in their vote.”
Nevertheless, on Monday he purported to honor King, saying that we “also recall his actions and are inspired by them to consider how we can best build on that legacy in our own unique ways.”
“Hate is too great a burden to bear. I have decided to love.” – MLK
As we honor Dr. King and celebrate his contributions to our state and country, we also recall his actions and are inspired by them to consider how we can best build on that legacy in our own unique ways. pic.twitter.com/RNrPDRyZUR
— Governor Brian P. Kemp (@GovKemp) January 17, 2022
Another “unique way” to purportedly “build on” King’s legacy comes from Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. In April, DeSantis signed a voting law that, according to the Brennan Center, “makes a slew of changes to Florida elections, including making voter registration more difficult [and] modifying rules for observers in ways that could disrupt election administration.” The law, writes Brennan’s Eliza Sweren-Becker, was advanced “under the pretext of addressing unfounded and unspecified concerns about election integrity.”
DeSantis’ is also the animating force behind what he and fellow state Republicans called “anti-riot” law, which was passed in response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The bill initially would have provided enhanced legal protections for people who hit protesters with a vehicle, though a final version stripped some, though not all, of those provisions out. On Monday, the day aimed at honoring a protest leader who was repeatedly and ultimately fatally targeted by violence, DeSantis tweeted:
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dedicated his life to the principles of liberty codified in the Declaration of Independence. We honor him today for his tireless efforts on behalf of freedom. pic.twitter.com/6ptDxGBq3m
— Ron DeSantis (@GovRonDeSantis) January 17, 2022
DeSantis’ statement shouts out the “principles of liberty codified in the Declaration of Independence,” a declaration that failed to ban the practice of holding millions of Black people in slavery, which lasted for nearly another century.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, has jointed McConnell in the fight against federal protection for voting rights. His caucus, however, lacks the votes to block House Democrats, but it’s not for lack of trying. On Monday, he tweeted:
From the halls of Ebenezer Baptist Church to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, #MLK spent his life spreading what he called "the gospel of freedom." He never gave up and never preached hate.
His words and example inspire us today as we celebrate a great American on #MLKDay.
— Kevin McCarthy (@GOPLeader) January 17, 2022
A year before he was assassinated, King in 1967 laid out plans for a “Poor People’s Campaign” that, as described by Stanford University’s King Institute, would engage with “government officials to demand jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage, and education for poor adults and children designed to improve their self-image and self-esteem.”
As well as opposing voting rights, McCarthy — like the other Republicans listed above and many, many others tweeting about Monday’s holiday — is a willing participant in Republicans’ decades-old effort to roll back the social safety net.