MLK Jr. would be ‘greatly disappointed’ by Senate inaction on voting reform, son says

Monday has been a day to remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and also a day of calls to action on voting rights. Demonstrators marched through streets in Washington in support of voting legislation now stalled in the U.S. Senate, and Vice President Harris warned the freedom to vote is under assault. Judy Woodruff discusses the day with the King Jr.'s son, Martin Luther King III.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    This has been a day for remembering the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but also a day of calls to action on voting rights.

    In Chicago, a car caravan rolled through streets in support of voting legislation now stalled in the U.S. Senate. In Washington, demonstrators marched for the same cause. And in a virtual address, Vice President Harris warned, the freedom to vote is under assault.

    Kamala Harris, Vice President of the United States: Today, we must not be complacent or complicit. We must not give up, and we must not give in. To truly honor the legacy of the man we celebrate today, we must continue to fight for the freedom to vote, for freedom for all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The family of Martin Luther King Jr. is at the forefront of today's efforts calling for expanded voting rights.

    The civil rights leader's son Martin Luther King III is chairman of the Drum Major Institute.

    And I spoke with him a short time ago.

    Martin Luther King III, thank you very much for joining us.

    You have been observing your father's birthday for virtually your entire life. You have been speaking about the commitment that he had to voting rights, to civil rights.

    How is this year different?

  • Martin Luther King III, Civil Rights Leader:

    What makes this year different is, we are specifically focused on delivering for voting rights.

    We have seen, since 2021, after the insurrection, 19 states with 34 pieces of legislation that have created suppression voting rights legislation.

    So our goal is to get the John Lewis bill and For the People Voting Rights Act done. And I think that, normally, we're looking at issues, but this is fundamental to our democracy, in terms of saving our democracy.

    It shouldn't be about making it harder for people vote. It should be making it easier and expanding and protecting. And that's why we need the United States Senate to vote on these bills.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to play for you right now something your father said in 1965. You mentioned the Senate. He was talking about the filibuster, the rule that is at issue today. Let's listen.

  • Martin Luther King Jr., Civil Rights Leader:

    I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting.

    They won't let the majority of senators vote. And, certainly, they wouldn't want the majority of people to vote, because they know they do not represent the majority of the American people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That was all those years ago. What do you think he would be saying about what is going on right now?

  • Martin Luther King III:

    Well, I think, first, he would be greatly disappointed in the current leadership in the Senate, particularly — and I — well, I don't know about particularly one side or the other, because the reality is, there are enough senators there to get this done around protecting, preserving and expanding votes rights.

    But he would be very disappointed that the leadership has chosen so far not to get this done.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the minds you are trying to change in the Senate is that of Arizona Democrat Senator Kyrsten Sinema.

    I'm sure you know, on the floor of the Senate last week, she said, yes, she is for voting rights reform, but she is more concerned about the political divide in this country and deepening those divisions.

    What would you say to her about that?

  • Martin Luther King III:

    Well, I need her to explain why she was willing to go around that provision to raise just a few weeks ago the debt ceiling, to make sure the full, faith and credit of our country didn't go in the tubes, which is very important, by the way, but yet she was willing to forego it then.

    She was willing to create a scenario for health care, which is good, in 2010. But when it comes to protecting the rights, the most fundamental right we have, the right to vote, it is perplexing to me.

    You can't say you are for something, in my judgment, and not have a pathway to make it happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You are referring, of course, to the Senate rule, the filibuster.

    You are focusing a lot of your attention on those two Democratic holdouts, Senator Sinema and Senator Manchin, but we know Republicans are opposing these changes en masse. And we heard yesterday Senator Mitt Romney say — and I'm going to quote.

    He said — he's speaking about advocates for change. He said: "They feel that, instead of elections being run at the state level, they should really be managed and run at the federal level. But the founders didn't have that vision in mind."

    What would you say to that?

  • Martin Luther King III:

    So, well, the fact of the matter is, when states are making it harder and restricting people's right to vote, and embracing what we feel is like a Jim Crow mentality — this is Jim Crow 2.0 is what they are doing — then it — the federal government is where we always turn to get relief.

    There used to be a preclearance provision in the Voting Rights Act. We need that preclearance provision again, so that states will not mistreat people, that everyone is treated the same way. And, again, we should be expanding the right to vote.

    And I — you know, quite frankly, I'm going to go so far and say I'm disappointed to hear some of the things. I know that Senator Romney had said that he was concerned in relationship to some of the things the president has said and he hadn't been reached out to.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Martin Luther King III:

    But yet Senator Kaine said they have reached out across the aisle, and not one Republican, other than maybe the senator from Alaska or — had expressed some interest, but everyone else, all of them.

    So they are on the side — they are on the wrong side of history, in my judgment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I want to ask you about President Biden.

    As you know, he's pleaded for voting rights over the last several weeks, but AME Bishop Reginald Jackson is arguing that the president was late to this game. And I'm quoting him.

    But South Carolina Representative James Clyburn said yesterday that, given COVID, that the president's priorities have been in the right place. Who is right here?

  • Martin Luther King III:

    Yes, they are both right.


  • Martin Luther King III:

    I mean, that sounds strange.

    But, in other words, the president has had a number of priorities as it relates to COVID. There is nothing probably more important than the health and safety of our nation. But there also is nothing more important than the right to vote for everyone in an unencumbered way for our nation.

    So, I think, in a real sense, both things are — both areas are right. Congressman Clyburn is right and Bishop Jackson.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Bishop Jackson went on to say he thinks the president needs to, as he put it, draw a line in the sand.

    He said, if these senators are not going to support the top priority, then the president needs to make it clear democracy is going to come first before their own special projects, interests and priority.

    In other words he is talking about some kind of punishment of senators who don't go along.

  • Martin Luther King III:

    Well, I think what Bishop Jackson was saying is that those who are not willing to engage in the process of democracy in fairness for all people in terms of right to vote, then, when it comes to election time again, they may not get the support that they might have gotten in the past.

    And I think that's very real. I think that's a realistic perception.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just to follow on that, I know you say you are very focused on this coming vote, but what does it — what do you believe it's going to mean for this year's elections if voting rights reform does not pass?

  • Martin Luther King III:

    Well, that's — I think the biggest issue is, there are a myriad of issues on the table right now.

    And the reason voting rights needs to — I mean, voting rights protection needs to pass are to ensure that the maximum number of people can participate in the process. But if the maximum number of people are not allowed to participate in the process, it could be certainly disastrous.

    I mean, the president could lose the majority in both houses. Some conventional wisdom might say that already the House is lost. But the Senate could be lost as well. So, we — none of us know any of that right now. We're looking at conventional wisdom this day, but a number of things can change.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Martin Luther King III, thank you very much for joining us. We appreciate it.

  • Martin Luther King III:

    Thank you for the opportunity.

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