If the working definition of news is a departure from the normal, then Joe Biden’s speech Tuesday pressing Congress to preserve and expand voting rights for minorities barely qualifies. American presidents have been making that speech for more than a half-century.
But perhaps, in a more expansive definition of news, the very fact that, as Senate votes on the issue loom, Mr. Biden had to make a pilgrimage to Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church – the rock upon which Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. built the modern movement to integrate the United States and win equality for Black people – itself qualifies as news.
“The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation’s history,” Mr. Biden said. “Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield, I will not flinch.”
Mr. Biden made the remarks 59 years after John F. Kennedy said civil rights were “a moral issue” that was “as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution,” and 57 years after Lyndon B. Johnson began his speech for voting rights by saying, “I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colours, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.”
The resilience of voting barriers prompted some civil-rights advocates to boycott Mr. Biden’s speech, charging that he has not done enough to win new protections for minority voters. These activists and Democrats have charged that the barriers to casting votes by minorities and the poor have grown as a result of laws passed in the past year by Republican-controlled state legislatures.
“My father, who grew up in segregated Lynchburg, Va., set up the Voter Education Project and for 18 years was president of the United Negro College Fund, would be stunned and saddened to learn this was still an issue,” said Christopher Edley, who teaches law at the University of California, Berkeley, and is dean of its school of education. “I’m glad he’s not here to see this.”
Five days after Mr. Biden abandoned his mellow, accommodating tone and attacked former president Donald Trump for fomenting an insurrection at the Capitol a year ago, the President adopted an equally forceful tenor to support the voting-rights legislation. “Hear me plainly,” he said. “The battle for the soul of America is not over. We must stand together and stand strong.”
The President said new state voting legislation enacted by his Republican rivals were designed “to suppress your vote, to subvert our elections,” and would have the effect of turning “the will of the voters into a mere suggestion, something the states can respect or ignore.” He said of Republican state lawmakers, “To them too many people voting in a democracy is a problem, so they are putting up obstacles.”
Mr. Biden was accompanied to Atlanta by Kamala Harris, who as the first Black vice-president implored him to make voting rights a priority. The President’s remarks, made on the grounds of the historically Black institutions Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College after his visit to Dr. King’s church, had a contemporary tint, reflecting massive changes in American politics and, especially, in the profile of the country’s two major political parties, since the Kennedy-Johnson years – and even since the George W. Bush years.
In 1965, when Mr. Johnson beseeched Congress to pass the original Voting Rights Act, the measure won support from a larger percentage of Republicans (93 per cent in the Senate, 80 per cent in the House of Representatives) than from Democrats. Today support for the two pieces of legislation Mr. Biden advocates – that would create national standards for postal votes and shore up protections for voting rights – is concentrated in the Democratic Party and requires alterations in ancient Senate rules that allow Republicans to kill such measures through legislative filibusters.
That is a measure of two characteristics of the American party system that have vanished over the past six decades: the presence of adamantine segregationists in the South, the foundation of Democratic power since the days after the Civil War; and the power of moderates and liberals in the Republican Party, primarily in the Northeast, the upper Midwest and the Northwest.
Mr. Biden – himself a creature of the Senate by virtue of his 36 years in the chamber and a lawmaker who, until his 2020 presidential-primary campaign, boasted of strong work relationships with the fire-eating Southern segregationists – Tuesday indicated his support to eliminate the filibuster, a legislative provision that in most cases requires the approval of two-thirds of the Senate, or 60 votes, to move legislation forward, for voting-rights matters. Dating to 1837, the filibuster over the years has been used by lawmakers on the left (the populist senator Huey P. Long employed it in the 1930s to fight legislation that he believed injured the poor) and, more often and more recently, by Southern conservatives (battling civil rights).
The President argued that state legislatures can restrict voting rights by simple majorities, adding, “If they can do that, then the United States Senate should be able to protect voting rights by a simple majority.”
Now the lines have hardened, not only over the two new voting rights proposals that Democrats have put forward but also over the filibuster – a phenomenon destined to tie the filibuster and minority rights in history even more closely together than they were in 1957, when senator J. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, then a Democrat but later a Republican, spoke for 24 hours 18 minutes in an effort to prevent a vote on an early civil-rights bill.
Today’s party lines on voting-rights legislation are themselves a vast departure from what was, within living memory – indeed, within this century – a bipartisan consensus.
Mr. Johnson brought 112 House Republicans and 30 Senate Republicans into the ranks of supporters of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
For decades, voting rights was a bipartisan cause. “What had been a fairly non-controversial issue has become controversial,” said Matthew Dallek, a professor of political management at George Washington University. “Biden’s speech comes at a very different time than Johnson’s. And with today’s fierce partisan divisions, we can’t expect his speech to have the enduring impact or historical importance that Johnson had with his speech.”
Both presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush supported extensions of the original act. The younger Mr. Bush signed the legislation, passed unanimously in the Senate, by saluting the original bill, praising it for having broken “the segregationist lock on the voting box,” and said, “The right of ordinary men and women to determine their own political future lies at the heart of the American experiment.”
One of the lawmakers who contributed to the 98-0 vote – 16 of them current Republican senators who oppose the new legislation – on the measure was then-senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who noted that in some areas of the country, the ability of minorities to vote remained dependent on federal supervision. “Despite the progress these states have made in upholding the right to vote,” he said the day Mr. Bush signed the legislation, “it is clear the problems still exist.”
Sixteen years and one Black president later, that remains the case.
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