Dr. King and The Struggle to Vote
Updated: Feb 15, 2022
Fifty-four years after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our nation is still struggling, often refusing to allow many of its citizens to enjoy the protections under the United States Constitution. Many reading this will argue that the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments include extending liberties and rights to all citizens, including Black Americans. Yes, the 13th amendment abolished slavery. The 14th amendment granted citizenship to all persons "born or naturalized in the United States."The 15th amendment prohibited states from disenfranchising voters "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude," however, here in 2022, we are still fighting for our states, and in many cases, our nation to uphold these civil liberties for all.
Additionally, please be aware that the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were created after the United States Constitution and its first 10 amendments were ratified, which means that the rights of Black people were not included. Article one, section two of the Constitution of the United States is where the "Three-Fifths Compromise" is listed. The verbiage follows:
"Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this Union, according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons, including those bound to service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons."
The text outright acknowledges slavery taking place. However, it does not state, implicitly or explicitly, that it is wrong. It does not state that humans owning other humans is inhumane. In the United States, slavery was not only an institution; it had a specific name, chattel slavery. The definition of Chattel Slavery is "an enslaved person held as the legal property of another" (Merriam-Webster) and "the enslaving and owning of human beings and their offspring as property, able to be bought, sold, and forced to work without wages, as distinguished from other systems of forced, unpaid, or low-wage labor also considered to be slavery." (Dictionary.com) Sadly, the Indigenous community would not have been forcibly removed from their land if not for the Three-fifths Compromise. That discussion is for another time.
Nine years before the Civil Rights Act, Rev. George Lee of Mississippi was promised protection if he ceased his efforts for voter registration of Black people. He refused and was murdered. Jimmie Lee Jackson holds significant acknowledgment in the fight against racism and voting rights. He was tortured and shot by Alabama State Troopers during a civil rights march while protecting his mother and grandfather, who were also in attendance. This action was precipitous of the march from Selma to Montgomery, which later led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. fought and died to be law.
My purpose for emphasizing that Black people did not have protections under the United States Constitution, save for that of being commerce through slavery, and that we were routinely killed as we demanded the fundamental right to vote is that on this day of January 15, 2022, the actual birthdate of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., our nation continues to be divided regarding how human beings, specifically Black people, should be treated. We have elected officials with their "crocodile tears" who will stand firm on the principles of a document that not only did not include the equal protections of Black people but refused to allow us to vote. It makes absolutely no sense that we are still seeking permission to vote over 50 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After the assignation of Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we are still seeking permission to vote!
We have folks on both sides of the proverbial political aisle who constantly quote the following quote from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." It's as if this quote is the only thing many know or attribute to Dr. King.
Unfortunately, the selection is used by many who wish to use "colorblind conservatism" and "colorblind liberalism" to advance their rationalization that racism does not exist in America and that we are a post-racial society which is false. The mindset of being colorblind produces a false sense of security that everyone is equal when we do not see color. However, this racial trope serves to continue racial divides and increase oppression. Additionally, holding on to one quote as the fundamental basis of someone's existence does not make one any less racist or not at all racist.
When I think of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the stressful times we live in, I am not reminded of the famous "I have a dream" speech. No, I am instantly reminded of "Letter from Birmingham Jail." The more acutely known text from Dr. King is often buried. In it, Dr. King espouses another notable quote, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." However, the remaining segments of the powerful statement often become lost. When he further states, "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied to a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly". The quote directly links the events taking place with our fight, our right, to be able to vote. And that no matter what state or elected official is trying to deny said right, we should have the following mindset, "cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states", much like how Dr. King felt when he was in jail in Alabama. He stressed, "I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham." For clarity, the entirety of the quote follows,
"Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."
Such is why when we use powerful quotes, we must understand the context in which it was written. We must understand the mindset from which it was derived. The onslaught of eradicating voting rights throughout the United States, whether it is in your state or not, has a direct impact on those from all states and across the land. Case in point, Senator Kyrsten Sinema is standing upon the principle of bipartisanship in maintaining the preservation of the filibuster. However, what if our nation preserved our United States Constitution in its original state? As I shared initially, Black people were considered three-fifths of a person. The original text did not include the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Where would Black people fit in the narrative of American History?
We already have individuals who refuse to allow the teaching of American History, ALL of it, in our nation's schools.
We already have whitewashing of curriculum and fundamental civil liberties.
We already have Black men being lynched while jogging down the street.
We already have Black women murdered as they sleep in their residence after a no-knock warrant.
We already have Black boys being shot and killed for having a toy gun while those who are not Black have open season on children in our schools.
We already have our authorities of "law and order" killing our Black men while kneeling on their necks.
We already have state police in various states who disproportionally stop Black drivers.
We already have fights against school districts for implementing Equity Challenges while renowned nonprofits win awards for their implementation.
We already have "Jim Crow 2.0" alive and well in all facets of the lives of Black Americans.
So, where would Black people fit in the narrative of American History? We would be where we are now and have always been, strategically placed as proverbial equals, which our lived experiences and history does not support.
In addition to the colorblind mindset spoken of earlier, we often hear statements like, "Stop living in the past. We have made progress. Why can't you see that?" My answer to that question is that we are still in the same confines we were in decades ago. We are still being lynched. Our History is still being whitewashed, and we are still being denied the right to vote. That is not the past that is the present, but it sure as hell does not have to be our future.
When individuals, especially our elected officials, stand upon the principle of retaining the filibuster, in its original state, instead of having the forethought of what the impact would be on millions of historically persecuted persons whose primary goal is equal protection under the law inclusive of being able to vote, that person and anyone else with said thought is living in a utopian world that does not exist and is of life and death for Black Americans.
The entirety of "Letter from Birmingham Jail" focuses upon the monumental injustices we, as Black people, face continually. As Dr. King addresses his letter to his colleagues, he laments,
"You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you would want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city's white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative." (Letter from Birmingham Jail)
Is this not taking place today in 2022 on his birthdate? Does this sound familiar?
"Some have asked: "Why didn't you give the new city administration time to act?" The only answer that I can give to this query is that the new Birmingham administration must be prodded about as much as the outgoing one, before it will act. We are sadly mistaken if we feel that the election of Albert Boutwell as mayor will bring the millennium to Birmingham. While Mr. Boutwell is a much more gentle person than Mr. Connor, they are both segregationists, dedicated to maintenance of the status quo." (Letter from Birmingham Jail) It is familiar to me because it is the mindset that a subset of our elected officials and those who believe we live in a colorblind society think.
No, waiting does not work. If it did, we would not be sitting here 54 years after the Civil Rights Act asking, requesting, demanding permission to vote. We have a significant population of our country who is hellbent upon "reforming" the ability of its citizens to vote. Their premise rests upon the fact that their candidate, the incumbent, to be specific, lost millions of votes and is no longer the leader of our nation. They continued to implore that millions of people voted who did not have "the right" to do so. They spoke ad nauseam about dead people voting against their candidate, although several situations proved their supporters were committing said activities. To those who vilify the actions of Black people who demand equality and equity, are you familiar with the following text:
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied." (Letter from Birmingham Jail)
These words are Dr. King's, not mine or that of any other movement that is deemed as radical. I invite everyone to read "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," written by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The onus is on you to look for it. If you are not Black, do not burden someone who is to locate the text for you. Do the work!
Happy Birthday Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr! We will continue to fight for voting rights every day and not just on your birthday! You did not just have a dream; among your list of demands focused upon civil rights was the right to vote for all. We are still working on it, sir.