“Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?”
President Joe Biden, speaking in Atlanta, put the pressure on U.S. Senators on the issue of voting rights, telling them to choose which historical legacy they want to be a part of: that of Rev. Martin Luther King, who fought for racial justice and democracy, or Alabama Gov. George Wallace, a staunch racist and segregationist. | AP photos

“I ask every elected official in America: How do you want to be remembered?” President Biden declared in the most powerful speech of his career yesterday. “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the sides of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”

Biden’s sharp comparisons of people who fight for civil rights and people who take them away literally took the breath away from people in the audience at the event yesterday, which was organized by four historically Black colleges. One such comparison was Biden’s equating of opponents of Senate rule changes to slaveholders and segregationists.

Biden’s speech followed a speech by Vice President Harris, the first woman and second person of color ever elected to one of the nation’s top two offices. Harris issued a call for a massive lobbying blitz for the voting rights bills, specifically targeting senators.

One of the bills passed in the House but languishing in the Senate, the Freedom to Vote Act, would prevent restrictions on mail-in voting, make Election Day a holiday, and radically curb gerrymandering by state legislators that reduces representation for minority voters.

Another bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, would restore major sections of the Voting Rights Act that were killed by the Supreme Court in 2013, It would require state changes in Election laws to be approved by the Justice Department, for example.

“The threat to our democracy is so grave that we must find a way to pass these voting rights bills,” he declared. “Debate them! Vote! Let the majority prevail!”

And if that’s impossible because of implacable Republican opposition, “We have no option but to change the Senate rules to get rid of the filibuster for this” issue. Breaking a filibuster takes 60 Senate votes and the Senate is split 50-50. The split lets 41 Republicans stop anything and everything. Which, led by Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., they do.

“When it comes to protecting majority rule in America, a majority should rule in the United States Senate,” said Biden. “To protect our democracy, I support changing the Senate rules to prevent a minority of senators from blocking action on voting rights” via filibuster threats. He noted now such threats stop and kill legislation.

Biden didn’t mention that two Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., and Krysten Sinema, D-Ariz., oppose changing the filibuster. Without them, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., can’t bring up the voting rights measures, much less pass them. The other 46 Democrats and both independents support both bills and the filibuster change, too.

Converting Manchin and Sinema to support would produce a tie which Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris, who preceded Biden at the Atlanta podium, could then break.

Biden also didn’t lambaste corporate special interests whose campaign dollars bankroll democracy’s foes, plus Manchin and Sinema. As Senate Energy Committee chair, Manchin reaps millions from oil and natural gas firms. Sinema recently held a high-dollar fundraiser in Paris.

And while the corporate class overwhelmingly backs Republicans, many Democrats also benefit from its campaign cash. Notable exceptions include Sens. Bernie Sanders, Ind-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and “The Squad” of eight progressive House Democrats. They refuse corporate contributions.

And an independent analysis recently reported Republicans who supported the Trumpite attempted coup on Jan. 6, 2021—the day of the invasion of the Capitol—have garnered at least $8.1 million in corporate campaign cash since then. The Freedom To Vote Act would curb some of that dollar flow, enforce more disclosure of its sources, or both.

Biden takes the gloves off

Instead, delighting the crowd, Biden took the gloves off against foes of voting rights. The overwhelming majority of them, in and out of political office, are Republicans kowtowing to former GOP Oval Office occupant Donald Trump’s white racism and nationalism.

The fight over voting rights for all and ensuring all votes are counted and recorded honestly is a contest between democracy and authoritarianism, the president declared. Biden backs voting rights and his predecessor, Trump, whom Biden never named, does not.

“Will you stand against voter suppression? Yes or no?” Biden challenged the crowd and the country. “Will you stand against election subversion? Yes or no?” “Will you stand for democracy and against autocracy? Yes or no?”

Then, bluntly, he confronted the GOP: “I ask every public official in America: How do you want to be remembered? Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?” then Alabama’s racist  Democratic governor. “Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis,” the civil rights crusader, “or Bull Connor?” the Birmingham police chief whose cops almost beat Lewis to death in 1965.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris watch as Martin Luther King III lays a wreath at the tomb of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and his wife Coretta Scott King, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Atlanta. | Patrick Semansky / AP

“And do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jeff Davis?”

Right now, Biden implied, implacable Republican opposition to voting rights puts them on the side of suppression, subversion, autocracy, Wallace, Connor, and Davis, the Confederacy’s sole president.

Since the defeat of Trump, his lies about a “stolen election” in 2020 have produced GOP-sponsored voter suppression legislation in 19 states and counting. And that includes measures to take the decision out of the hands of voters and put it in the paws of partisan politicians.

The bills in the Senate, if they become law soon, would reverse voter suppression and partisan vote-counting, clean up campaign finance and implement other measures to guard democracy, “Congress must debate and vote on” those two bills, Biden declared. Senate Republicans, wielding the filibuster threat, won’t even let debate start, he pointed out. He urged the crowd, including many students from the historically black institutions such as Morehouse College, to get actively involved.

And if the effort to pass the bills, scheduled to culminate on the weekend of the Martin Luther King Birthday holiday, fails due to a Republican filibuster, then Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., will take the next step by January 18: Trying to end filibusters against voting rights.

The speeches by the president and vice president yesterday have already gotten an enthusiastic response from the AFL-CIO, including a statement from President Liz Shuler and an online petition. Indivisible and other progressives plan marches and phone banks. And the Poor People’s Campaign staged a pastoral call-in from Jan. 9-11.

Pastors target Manchin

The 200 pastors targeted Manchin, Sinema, and GOP leader McConnell. He’s now an unrelenting foe of voting rights and marshals his whole caucus against it. That’s unlike past history, Biden noted, when the GOP—then the party of Lincoln—strongly backed and enacted voting rights, over the opposition of racist Southern Democrats, such as Wallace.

Those “Dixiecrats” also used the filibuster against civil rights, while the McConnell-led GOP now does so against civil rights, voting rights, and virtually everything else. “Everything else” includes two other measures workers and unions consider vital.

One is Biden’s Build Back Better 10-year strengthening of the social safety net while battling climate change, too. The other is the Protect The Right To Organize (PRO) Act, the most wide-ranging pro-worker labor law reform since the original National Labor Relations Act.

The BBB bill in particular has been pushed back as lawmakers tackle voting rights. Talks on BBB continue, the White House said—with Manchin again the center of attention.

Biden cited voter repression in GOP-run Georgia as a reason to pass the two bills. He said they could roll back all past repressive laws. Some legal analysts doubt that. Other repressive states include North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Arizona, plus GOP attempts in Pennsylvania. All but Carolina were swing states Biden carried in 2020 against Trump. Trump won all five in 2016. Trump continually lies, without proof, that the 2020 election was stolen.

Trump’s lies led directly to the white nationalist Trumpite invasion, insurrection, and coup d’état try at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and to the raft of GOP-sponsored state measures both repressing the right to vote and putting election control in the hands of political partisans. Both Biden and Harris cited the invasion. Biden even used the word “coup” to describe it.

Schumer, the AFL-CIO’s Shuler, Senate Rules Committee Chair Amy Klobuchar, DFL-Minn.,

—sponsor of the two bills—the Poor People’s Campaign and others made those same points in support.

“One year ago, we watched in horror as a violent mob, many carrying banners proclaiming white supremacy and anti-government slogans, attempted to block the peaceful transfer of power by storming the U.S. Capitol. On that day, so many of us felt powerless watching the violence unfold,” Shuler said.

“But we are not powerless, and the lesson of the January 6 attack cannot be forgotten. The very people who witnessed firsthand our democracy under assault now have the opportunity to strengthen our system of government, not weaken it.

“Congress must pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 and the Freedom To Vote Act to protect the right of every American to cast our vote and have that vote counted so that every eligible voter has a say in who represents them.”

The federation also posted an online petition for the measures. But its headline concentrates on killing Senate filibusters. “The choice is clear: Sideline the filibuster, not the hopes, aspirations, and representation of America’s people,” it reads. (Their emphasis.)

Petition co-sponsors include state labor federations in Metro D.C., Minnesota, both Carolinas, Iowa, Oregon, Tennessee, New Mexico, Alaska, and Arizona, the New York City Central Labor Council, the San Francisco Labor Council, and the South Florida Labor Council.

COVID imposes limitations

“Because of Covid (the coronavirus), we can’t do a nonviolent mass sit-in,” said the Poor People’s Campaign co-chairs, the Revs. Bishop William Barber II and Dr. Liz Theoharis. “We will adjust to the virus, but for the sake of democracy, we cannot stand down or quit.”

“The non-constitutional filibuster is used only to block progress, such as voting rights protections and never to move the nation forward. While civil rights legislation is the most familiar target, the Senate also has used the filibuster to block: voting rights for women, labor rights, and even an independent consumer protection agency,” the campaign added.

“You cannot look at the incident of January 6, of that insurrection, on its own. The threats of violence have continued,” Klobuchar warned her colleagues.

Klobuchar went into detail about the Freedom To Vote Act. It would “give the people of this country the right to vote, protect the right to vote, and make sure they understand they can vote anywhere from any ZIP Code in a safe way because right now, sadly, that is simply not the case in many states in our country,” she told her Senate colleagues.

“If you are in North Carolina right now and you want to cast a mail-in ballot and you have Covid or you are in the hospital, you have to get a notary public to sign off on your ballot. If you are in Georgia, and you are a new resident there, you have moved there from another state…you are no longer allowed to register in the last month as you were in the past.

“As we saw in the last election in 2020 in Houston, in that county of five million people, there was only one drop-off box in the entire county,” on the orders, though Klobuchar did not say so, of right-wing GOP Gov. Greg Abbott.

Republican-run Texas is the site of some of the most-repressive GOP-sponsored anti-voting rights measures in the U.S. The state specifically outlawed measures, such as Sunday voting after church services, that Harris County’s Black and brown voters used in 2020.

“And there are places in states where you wait in line, eight 10 hours in the hot sun just to exercise your right to vote,” Klobuchar added. Biden cited those long lines, too—and Georgia’s voter repression legislation. Among other edicts, Georgia now bans people from giving those standees food and water.

Studies show those restrictions, and the others, disproportionately discourage and deny the right to vote to people of color. Biden, however, warned voting restrictions would hurt everyone in the U.S.

John Wojcik contributed to this article.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.