Ahead of march, King says voting rights effort will focus on Senate ‘like a laser’

Son of slain civil rights leader will speak on anniversary of ‘dream’ speech

Martin Luther King III  speaks at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 2013, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.  (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Martin Luther King III speaks at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 2013, the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Posted August 26, 2021 at 10:00am

Martin Luther King III will be one of the speakers at a march and rally in the District to push for federal voting legislation on Saturday, the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington, where his father gave the famous "I Have a Dream" speech. King spoke with CQ Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis for her Equal Time podcast about pressuring the Senate to pass a voting rights bill honoring the late Rep. John Lewis that the House approved Tuesday. He also opined on what his father would think about battles over voting and racial issues being waged today. Here's an edited transcript:

Q: The march coming up is reminiscent of the march of 58 years ago. Do you feel that you are refighting some of the same battles that your father and activists of the 1950s and ’60s fought for?

A: Unfortunately, we're going backward and not forward. … Over 18 states now have passed legislation to restrict people's rights to vote, as opposed to expanding the right to vote. The 1965 Voting Rights Act expanded the right to vote, but it was struck down in 2013 by the Supreme Court, who said we didn't need voting rights protections anymore. … Obviously, that is not true. Last year, people voted at levels that we've never seen before, and it caused a reaction. The reaction was: ‘Oh, my gosh, all these people voting, we must find ways to make it harder for people to vote.’

Q: Yeah, well, what do our country's leaders need to do? Why does it seem, somehow, but it hasn't been a real legislative priority?

A: Well, from my perspective, it is really about one party having an advantage, of some kind of creating advantage over the other as opposed to … making it possible and easy for every person to vote. Someone seems to want just some people to vote. And that's the way they believe that they can maintain their power, as opposed to what democracy is supposed to be about. ... This is where we went in 1965, to get intervention. There was something called a preclearance provision in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which meant that the Justice Department would have to look at and approve the things that states did, particularly if they were things like reducing, and that's what would be helpful today for the Senate. The House has already passed one bill; this week, they’re going to be passing, I believe, the John Lewis bill. And the Senate thus far does not seem like it's ready to pass that bill. So we have to target, like a laser, the United States Senate, to get them to pass this bill that will make it possible for expansion of voting rights.

Q: In the past, the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized with overwhelming support from both parties. So why haven't we come farther? And in some cases, it looks like we're even going backward.

A: All of this, about creating new legislation to restrict the vote, was done under the auspices of people believing the lie, that former President [Donald] Trump told, that the election was flawed, that there were violations in elections and there needed to be audits done, and we need to change the voting process. Which is tantamount to reducing, particularly in black and brown communities. So that when you see that absentee ballots were used and used very effectively, reduce the number of absentee ballots. Reduce the sites so that there are longer lines in communities of color and the black and brown community. Even in my state [Georgia], tragically, there's a state law that was passed that if the legislature does not like the result, which is all Republican or mostly Republican, they can change the nonpartisan election committee so that a new result can be put in place. These things to me seem like they are unconstitutional. But of course, you have judges who maybe interpret things differently. So we've got some uphill battles to do, and that's why oversight at the federal level, meaning the Justice Department, would provide the kind of relief that is needed, because these laws are regressive, repressive, oppressive, unnecessary, un-American and undemocratic.

Q: We have the midterms coming up. How do you think that adds some urgency?

A: We are registering 2 million people between now, at a minimum, and the midterm elections. The midterm elections are going to be so critically important for the president getting any agenda that he wants done. And so the president also must continue to be engaged and lead in this fight, just as he's dealing with so many other issues that are important to our nation and our world. But the most important issue, in my judgment, is if you don't secure the right to vote for everyone in a way that is not restricted, certainly this president won't be able to be effective in terms of getting any of his agenda done.

Q: And adding to the mix, we have the new census report showing a growth in the nonwhite population in this country. Although with folks drawing different district lines and gerrymandering, it's not guaranteed that those folks will have a voice. So how do you think that census plays into this political mix?

A: Well, you know, that's why it's critically important to have federal oversight, because the way the lines are going to be drawn, the gerrymandering that's going to take place could, in fact, create a prospect where a lot of people don't have representation. And historically, they have shown us how they can draw lines to exclude people. … And so that, again, is unacceptable. … We must make, not just make a lot of noise, but be out in the street saying, look, this is an important issue. … Over 60 percent of Americans want to see … voter registration expanded, want to see this legislation, want to see the John Lewis bill passed. But yet, the senators, particularly on the Republican side, it doesn't seem to have reached them yet.

Q: I want to talk a little bit about your father and his legacy. What do you think your father would make of where we are today, as a country?

A: I think my father would be greatly disappointed in where we are as a nation. … He talked about the America that ought to be. … He talked about its greatness, and it could become great. But he never would have talked about something being great again, because no one knows when that period is. … But he’d also be tremendously … proud of the young people that have been demonstrating last year … after the tragic death of George Floyd. Every state in our nation there were demonstrations, and oftentimes those demonstrations were led by whites. Every state. … He’d be proud of Black Lives Matter, no matter what someone may say who does not understand. He’d be very disappointed in our nation trying to make “critical race theory” an issue by saying we're gonna vote that down. I mean, why would you vote against learning history? This is not making anyone a victim or reducing who someone is — it’s about learning. … Critical race theory, first of all, isn’t even taught at the primary or secondary level. Maybe some institutions, you know, talk about it. But by and large, it's not even taught. It's taught in law school; it was designed to be taught at another level, at a college or university. And yet you're going all over the country, creating these laws, really creating division, as opposed to promoting truths. I think my father would be very disappointed in where we are right this moment. But he would also still be hopeful.

Q: We saw iconic and landmark civil rights laws, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act. They were legislative federal remedies, but they also were fueled by the activism on the ground. Is that what you hope for, with this coming together on this anniversary?

A: Yes, that is exactly what we hope for: that we are fueling the flames of justice, of righteousness. And we know that it is effective just because when Dad, in 1964, he had visited President [Lyndon] Johnson after the Civil Rights Act was signed, he said to the president, ‘We now need to get the Voting Rights Act.’ [Johnson] said, ‘I'm sorry, I just don't have political currency. I've run out of, I don't have anything to get it done.’ So Dad, in leaving the White House, when he left with his colleagues, said, ‘We're going to have to give the president some power.’ And of course, later on came Selma, led by John Lewis and Hosea Williams, across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. And then, eventually, it was a full march from Selma to Montgomery, and the president was able to sign the Voting Rights Act. ... We were in Washington ... almost three weeks ago now, meeting with senators and congresspersons on both sides of the aisle. And we were talking about getting this legislation done. And everyone said to us that you need to keep doing what you're doing. In fact, some of our own colleagues are paying attention because you've called for these demonstrations. So we know that demonstrations can be effective. And I also understand that a few good women and men bring about change. We are expecting and hoping for thousands across this country to come together on the 28th of August.