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Opinion: MLK was killed 53 years ago. His fight for Black voting rights has yet to be won

Dean ObeidallahDean Obeidallah
We are now seeing a wave of voter suppression measures championed by Republican elected officials, with the Brennan Center for Justice reporting that 361 restrictive bills have been introduced in 47 states. The most notable (for now, at least) are in Georgia and Texas. Let’s not pretend that race is not part of this GOP effort. As King pointedly declared at the conclusion of the 1965 civil-rights march from Selma to Montgomery, “The roots of racism and the denial of the right to vote” were intertwined.
Then the goal was expressly about maintaining White power. Today, it’s more about maintaining Republican power, but given that the GOP is overwhelmingly a White party it’s not much different. Indeed, the image of GOP Governor Brian Kemp signing the Georgia voting law — one that President Joe Biden has slammed as “Jim Crow for the 21st Century” — appears ripped from decades ago, with Kemp flanked by six White men in front of a painting of the former slave-owning Callaway planation.
King, in his famous “Give us the ballot” speech in 1957, said that if Black Americans could freely exercise their right to vote they could “fill our legislative halls with men of goodwill.” King then added words that still resonate, slamming the “types of conniving methods” being used by Southern elected officials to disenfranchise Black voters and noting that, “The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition.”
These are the same forces at play today. Let’s be 100% clear: There is no election fraud that prompted Republicans to change their laws, only concerns about loss of support. Even in Texas, where Republicans are still winning statewide, they are clearly alarmed that their margins of victory have shrunk. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won the state by nearly 16 points in 2012. Donald Trump’s winning margin dropped to nine points in 2016 and a little over five points in 2020. The Texas GOP clearly gets where this could be going.
In Georgia, will courts leave the fox in charge of the hen house? In Georgia, will courts leave the fox in charge of the hen house?
Consequently, we are seeing a tsunami of these new “conniving methods” being drawn with almost surgical precision to take the ballot from people of color — or at least make it much more challenging to exercise this constitutional right. The new Georgia law bans the use of mobile voting units unless the governor declares a state of emergency. These mobile units were effectively deployed last year in Fulton County, drawing more than 11,200 voters in an area where the majority of the population is Black and Hispanic and where the votes overwhelmingly went to Joe Biden — clearly an important turnout in a state he won by a mere 11,779 votes.
In Texas, the GOP-controlled state Senate approved a sweeping bill on Thursday that, among other things, would require early voting to end at 9 p.m. and prohibit drive-through voting. Why? Harris County, where Biden won by more than 14 points, was one of the counties that kept polls open to 10 p.m. to accommodate shift workers last year. Harris County also allowed drive-through voting at 10 polling sites. As Harris County officials noted, more than half of the votes counted at the drive-thru locations and during extended hours were cast by Black and Hispanic voters. You can see why the GOP wants to make it harder to vote there.
Most Republicans around the country aren’t objecting to these measures. A Pew survey released this week found the share of Republican supporters who believe “everything possible” should be done to make voting easy has dropped from 48% to 28% since 2018.
One way for the rest of us to pressure them to change their minds might be a remedy King likely would have approved: more boycotts such as those by Major League Baseball, which announced Friday it was moving its All-Star Game from Georgia in response to the voting restrictions. After all, King famously led a boycott from 1955 to 1956 of the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, that ultimately led to the Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional.
On April 3, 1968 — the day before he was assassinated — King spoke in support of the city of Memphis’ striking sanitation workers, calling for the use of economic boycotts to effect policy changes. King explained this tactic can be effective at “putting pressure where it really hurts.”
That approach can and has worked more recently, too. Look no further than the 2016 anti-LGBTQ law passed in North Carolina by the GOP-controlled state government, known as the “bathroom bill,” which prohibited transgender Americans from using the bathroom associated with the gender they identify with. In response, the NBA moved its 2017 All-Star Game from the state and dozens of entertainers and corporation canceled events or openings there. After a year of “putting pressure where it really hurts,” the GOP-controlled state legislature repealed some of the most objectionable provisions of the measure.
In King’s famous final speech, he urged Americans to “stand with a greater determination” to make America what it ought to be. “We have an opportunity to make America a better nation,” he said. King’s words are still inspiring — and a reminder that our nation’s struggle against toxic White power is yet to be won.
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