This weekend, many Americans will commemorate the 58th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. While there will be no shortage of reflections on and recitations of the “I Have a Dream” speech, which has become synonymous with that event, I find myself increasingly drawn not to the words spoken by King on that historic day but to the words written by him just a few months earlier. What I keep thinking about is King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”
While there is an abundance of lessons to be pulled from the Letter, the current battle to protect and expand voting rights makes me pay particular attention to King’s words regarding the need for nonviolent civil disobedience. In fact, I’m increasingly convinced that King would feel that it’s time to amp up our efforts on this issue by adopting the kind of civil disobedience we had to use in 1963 and the rest of the civil rights era.
Earlier this week, the House of Representatives passed the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which now joins the For the People Act as the second piece of voting rights legislation pending in Congress. Both face obstacles in the Senate because of the filibuster, the procedure which allows a minority of senators to not only block passage of legislation, but to even block discussion of such legislation.
Much has been written about why the filibuster should be ended or at minimum modified either to “carve out” voting rights or to create a talking filibuster. As it happens, the filibuster appeared in the list of demands for the 1963 March on Washington, which explicitly stated that the filibuster should not be allowed to block the policies for which hundreds of thousands were marching that day. King himself spoke in some detail about the way the filibuster was being used to block progress on civil rights. So there is no need to speculate about his position on the filibuster.
Senators such as Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and others would do well to refer to Dr. King’s explanation of just vs. unjust laws, which included the observation that “sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application.”
These senators, as well as President Biden, make a longer-term argument that without a filibuster, the GOP will simply ram through all kinds of harmful legislation and repeal voting rights and every other law they’ve been targeting the next time they have control of both chambers and the White House. It is reminiscent of arguments that King refuted in his letter, responding to critics who said that the movement’s actions, “even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence.” King asked, “Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery?”
It is a curious notion to believe that potential future abuse of power by Mitch McConnell and the GOP could only be caused by Democratic efforts today. Senate Republicans have already demonstrated their willingness to change the filibuster rules in their search for power, and arguably were able to steal three Supreme Court seats in doing so. In addition, GOP state legislatures are already abusing power as voter suppression bills sweep the country. To use King’s metaphor, the act of robbery is already taking place on a daily basis.
But the more important question in this critical moment is not whether the filibuster should be ended (it should), but what tactics are currently necessary to make that happen. It has become clear that only a significant escalation of nonviolent civil disobedience on the scale leading up to the Selma-to-Montgomery March will create the level of pressure necessary to pass voting rights legislation.
In King’s 1963 letter, he wrote:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
Indeed, over the past two months we have seen a number of efforts to foster such tension. In June, my organization and dozens of others launched a 10-day, nine-state Freedom Ride for Voting Rights to make the call for increased direct action on voting rights and statehood for the District of Columbia. For several weeks, the Poor Peoples Campaign have led marches and protests in West Virginia, Texas and the District of Columbia, resulting in hundreds of arrests. Until Freedom led an action at the Reagan National Airport which resulted in 26 arrests.
Elected officials have even joined in civil disobedience, most notably, state legislators from Texas who faced threats of arrest after breaking quorum and coming to Washington to communicate the need for federal action. The Black Women’s Roundtable led civil disobedience at a Senate office building which resulted in the arrest of several protestors, including Congresswoman 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.
Moreover, it’s worth noting that it was another CBC member, Rep. Cori Bush, who led perhaps the summer’s most successful act of civil disobedience, sleeping on the steps of the Capitol to demand action on the eviction moratorium.
However, completing the battle for voting rights will require an escalation beyond what we have seen to date. What’s needed is an escalation of civil disobedience on three levels: first, in the number of cities and counties where actions are taking place; second, in the frequency of actions; and third, in the level of disruption involved in such actions. We who believe in voting rights must demonstrate that we are willing to be ungovernable until the pending 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 on civil rights bills as early as 1874 and Strom Thurmond’s record-setting filibuster in 1957, to anti-lynching bills throughout the 1900s and Rand Paul’s filibuster of an anti-lynching bill just last year. The archaic, Jim Crow-era filibuster may not be top of mind for every Black American, but the ways it has been used to impact our most fundamental rights, from voting to our even more basic right to live, represents an existential threat that more that justifies the tactics of civil disobedience.
There are some who will say that such a call to escalate civil disobedience in support of voting rights is extremist. Once again, King’s letter is instructive, as he addressed those who had called him extreme by reminding his critics that Jesus was “an extremist for love.” He also noted that several of the most impactful U.S. presidents were also extremists for key principles, a fact on which Joe Biden should reflect. In short, King taught us that there is more than one type of extremism, and the extremism of love can overcome the extremism of terror and hate, whether domestic or international.
After all, shouldn’t a country that was literally birthed out of extremism, including vandalism against tea, hold extreme civil disobedience in higher regard? But instead, even basic forms of civil disobedience are often viewed as rude or inappropriate and increasingly treated as illegal, as evidenced by the recent wave of so-called “anti-protest” bills—Florida’s being the worst.
Such bills are themselves extreme, and they remind us of another key point in King’s letter: “The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be.” Extremism in pursuit of justice should not be confused with extremism that seeks to perpetuate injustice. The extremism on display at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 bears no resemblance to what I’m suggesting. Its premise was rooted in fiction rather than fact, its objective was not to liberate but to oppress, its guiding emotion was hate rather than love and its manifestation was violent rather than nonviolent.
We don’t have the luxury of time on this issue. King warned that it “becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.” That’s our situation now, for as the Senate continues to recess and deliberate, state legislatures are continuing to pass laws and, just as importantly, moving forward with morally corrupt redistricting plans. These new maps are guaranteed to further distort and entrench gerrymandered districts, and they will dictate electoral results for decades.
Anyone who professes to support voting rights and yet does not support an escalation of nonviolent civil disobedience is likely the very type of moderate that King bemoaned in his letter. The current moment requires more than that.
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