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‘Whenever it’s darkest, look to the stars’: Martin Luther King III keeps the pressure on for voting rights

‘Whenever it’s darkest, look to the stars’: Martin Luther King III keeps the pressure on for voting rights thumbnail

As the US approaches the annual holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr, the family of the late civil rights leader is urging Americans to hold off on celebrations. Instead, they’re urging Americans protest and to demand the Senate pass sweeping voting rights legislation.

But the prospects for such an effort, for now, seem bleak. On Thursday, Kyrsten Sinema and Joe Manchin, two Democrats who staunchly support the filibuster, said they would not back an effort to change the rules to advance voting rights legislation. Because no Republicans support the changes, that effectively kills any chance of passing voting rights legislation.

Martin Luther King III, the son of the civil rights leader, bluntly criticized Sinema, an Arizona Democrat, for her position on Thursday, saying history would remember her “unkindly”. “She’s siding with the legacy of Bull Connor and George Wallace instead of the legacy of my father,” he said.

The Guardian spoke with King III, and his daughter Yolanda, 13, about where the fight for voting rights goes from here.

You put out a statement after Senator Sinema’s speech saying history will not remember her kindly. After what you saw, is she persuadable?

First of all, I think you have to keep making the argument. It’s perplexing that you would say you’re for something, you’re for voting rights preservation, voting rights expansion, voting rights protections, but yet you’re not willing to, if a provision is in a way to keep that from happening. You’re not willing to modify [it].

I think we’ve got to see what happens when the vote [happens]. When the rubber meets the road, which is when the vote is taking place. Which is one of the reasons we’re going to be in Phoenix. Because we hope to mobilize more and more people in the state of Arizona, so that her voters can weigh in on this issue. I think there’s an important reason for them to be engaged. I also think that other Americans, on the holiday, the hope is that millions of people from around the nation will weigh in and let their senators know, we want these bills passed. So senators know, we want these bills passed.

That certainly applies to Senator Manchin as well. We’re going to continue to exert pressure. We’re going to sign petitions. The holiday is in every state as you know, and a lot of cities. We have called on those to observe the King holiday to not observe it in a traditional sense of celebrating. But a sense of activation, engagement, of activism. And that activism means reaching out.

Maybe sending text messages. Maybe sending Instagrams. Every modality we have, we want to flood the senators’ offices. Not just the two Democrats. All the senators. But we’re going to really focus on the two Democrats who have said they’re not gonna make any changes.

You’ve obviously been meeting with both of those senators over the last couple of months. I know you spoke with the president and met with him in Atlanta on Tuesday. Can you tell me what you’ve been saying to them privately and how you make this argument to them and whether you feel heard?

I think the president made a very, very strong presentation when he was here earlier in the week. His presentation about the filibuster and even the characterization of those who are not willing to do something being on the wrong side of history. I thought all of that was very good. Something that I had hoped we would have heard already, but the fact is it’s happening now. So I think the president is doing now more than what he was doing initially. And I’m thankful for that.

I have not had the opportunity, we have not spoken to Senator Sinema. We requested meetings but we’ve not been able to get her to confirm a meeting. Senator Manchin on the other hand, we did meet with him, maybe a month or two ago. We’ve not met with him recently.

There’s going to be a vote on the voting rights legislation Tuesday. Given the speeches we heard, it seems like the filibuster will hold. What does continuing this fight look like beyond that vote?

We come out of a tradition that whenever it’s darkest, you look to the stars. And so, things that look insurmountable have always been that way in the African American community. It’s always felt like ‘oh, this is gonna be we cannot accomplish’. But yet we find ways to be victorious.

I’m not willing to concede. Our tradition, if we were to go with what conventional wisdom is, as Black folk, we’d still be slaves. At the bottom of the day, things were not gonna change. But it’s because people keep pushing and rising up that changes do occur.

We’re gonna continue to push to get something done. Because to me, it’s fundamental to the foundation of our democracy. It’s those on the other side who seem to have lost the perception of what democracy is. And the way they’re operating is as if it’s a democracy but we change the rules when we want to, to make it whatever we want it to be made.

The sad part about it is that it has been couched as a partisan issue when voting rights is non-partisan. I mean we’re not telling people who to vote for. We just want to make sure that everyone has the unencumbered opportunity to be able to cast their votes in the easiest way that it can be done. And what they are doing in these 19 states with these 44 laws is they’re making it harder for people to vote. And these are all Republican legislatures. Or at least the votes are all Republican votes. And that’s almost a crime. But it certainly is a shame and a disgrace.

You guys have called for marches, for protesting for the right to vote. I think you’ve even said last month that there shouldn’t even be celebrations without protest and pushing for voting rights. Have you ever made that kind of call in the past?

When my mom and others envisioned the King holiday, she often said it’s a day on, not a day off. So it has always been a day of engagement. We have ramped that up even further to say this year we specifically want to be focused on protecting, preserving and expanding the right to vote. And there shouldn’t be celebration without legislation.

Obviously, if we had legislation, then we could celebrate momentarily. Again, we have to stay on the battlefield because there’s still many more battles to win. This is to me one of the most fundamental, it’s one of the cornerstones of my father’s legacy. The right to vote.

Yolanda Renee King spoke at the ‘March on for Voting Rights’ event on 28 August 2021 in Washington, DC.
Yolanda Renee King spoke at the ‘March on for Voting Rights’ event on 28 August 2021 in Washington DC. Photograph: Paul Morigi/Rex/Shutterstock

Our daughter, who’s sitting here next to me, was born in 2008. And yet, in 2013 the supreme court eviscerated the Voting Rights Act. And then in 2021, Georgia created all these new draconian laws and suppressive and oppressive laws for voting. So Yolanda has less voting rights today than she had when she was born.

Thinking about your father at this moment, I’m curious if you’ve thought about how he might respond to a setback like we saw yesterday. How might he have approached this moment and tried to galvanize support for getting rid of the filibuster?

He would continue to dig in. He stayed on issues. When we look at the demonstrations that took place, whether it was Birmingham, whether it was Selma. Birmingham created the climate for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They didn’t just give up and say, ‘oh, we’re not gonna get a civil rights act. They continued and continued and continued and ultimately a civil rights act was passed. The Voting Rights Act was a campaign. There were several marches. The first one, John Lewis and Hosea Williams from my dad’s organization led across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. But there were two or three more attempts and finally the third march that they had and finally the Voting Rights Act was passed. So my point is, Dad would be mobilizing, organizing, strategizing and making a way it would seem out of nowhere.

I wanted to give Yolanda a chance to jump in. I don’t know if there’s anything she wanted to add about what she’s seen over the last week or how she’s feeling going into this weekend.

Yolanda King: What I saw yesterday was disappointing, but you have to have perseverance. I think one of the most important things you have to learn in order to do this type of work, in order to be an activist, is that you have to learn how to persevere. As my dad was talking about, if you don’t do anything, things are going to stay the way that they are.

Interview has been condensed and edited

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