Republicans may retake control of the House next year, thanks largely to extreme gerrymandering by Republican state legislators, even as Republican opposition in Congress has impeded critical legislation to combat discriminatory voting practices and eliminate barriers to the ballot. As pressure grows for Democrats to pass two key voting rights bills, activists are holding the last in a series of protests at the White House, where nearly 100 have been arrested since August, including Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 13-year-old granddaughter Yolanda King. “States are suppressing the vote across the South, across the Midwest, even out in the far West, and there's only one way to stop it,” says Ben Jealous, president of People for the American Way and former president of the NAACP. “Congress has to pass urgently needed federal voting rights bills now.”
More from this Interview
- Part 1: Protect Voting Rights Now! MLK’s Granddaughter, Ben Jealous & More Risk Arrest at White House Protest
- Part 2: Ari Berman: With Extreme Gerrymandering, the Republicans Are Rigging the Next Decade of Elections
- Part 3: “No Doubt That Julius Jones Is Innocent”: Supporters Demand Stay of Execution for Oklahoma Man
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show looking at how Republicans could retake the House next year, thanks to extreme gerrymandering by Republican state lawmakers that could shape politics for the next decade. This comes as critical legislation to protect voting rights is languishing at the federal level.
Today, voting rights groups are holding the last in a series of protests at the White House, where nearly a hundred people have been arrested since August. Now 100 more are risking arrest to call on Democrats to push through two key bills. Among those detained at a November 3rd protest, the same day Republican senators blocked the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, was the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s 13-year-old granddaughter, Yolanda King. It was her first act of civil disobedience.
YOLANDA KING: I march because I want change, not just for me but for everyone who comes next. My grandma said every generation has to earn their freedom. I believe our generation can free the generations yet to be born. Adults have failed us, so we need to take matters into our own hands.
And finally, I march because I know activism works. I’ve seen it in my own family. When President Reagan refused to pass the King bill to make MLK Day an official holiday, my grandma met with many political leaders to tell them why it was so important. People marched, demonstrated and used their voices, and eventually, Reagan signed the bill. This is what we are going to do today to protect the right to vote!
As a 13-year-old and an activist, here’s my question to elected officials: Why are you in office? Are you here for power, or are you here to stop silent — or, are you here to use your platform for good? If you are here for good, it’s time to stop silencing our voices. We need critical bills passed: the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. These bills cannot wait!
AMY GOODMAN: That’s 13-year-old activist Yolanda King, the only granddaughter of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., speaking at a protest outside the White House earlier this month.
For more on today’s protest and the urgent calls for Democrats to “fix or nix the filibuster” and pass federal voting rights legislation, we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Ben Jealous, president of People for the American Way, former president of the NAACP.
And we’re joined by Ari Berman, senior reporter for Mother Jones, where his latest piece is headlined “Republicans Are Erasing Decades of Voting Rights Gains Before Our Eyes.” Ari is the author of Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America.
We welcome you both back to Democracy Now! Ben, let’s begin with you. Thank you for joining us right before you go to the White House again today, another plan for civil disobedience. Talk about why you have been repeatedly arrested.
BEN JEALOUS: We are in a moment in this country when states are suppressing the vote across the South, across the Midwest, even out in the far West. And there’s really only one way to stop it, which is that the Senate, the Congress has to pass urgently needed federal voting rights bills now, the John Lewis bill and the Freedom to Vote Act, which was authored in part by Joe Manchin himself. We have the 51 votes. Vice President Kamala Harris has done her job in getting that consensus as president of the Senate. And now we need Joe Biden, President Joe Biden, to do his job and to call on the Senate to create a path for an up-or-down vote on these bills, so we can stop this voter suppression now.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ben, how do you see the parallels between what the activists are doing today, pressuring President Biden, and what happened really a generation ago in the efforts to pressure LBJ around voting rights back then, and even something you’re more directly familiar with, the movement to pressure the Reagan administration over apartheid and U.S. complicity with the apartheid government in South Africa?
BEN JEALOUS: You know, Martin Luther King III told a story at the last protest of his father, Martin Luther King Jr., meeting with President Johnson when the '64 Civil Rights Act was passed. And Martin Luther King said to President Johnson, “It's time for us to now pass the Voting Rights Act.” And President Johnson said, “There’s just no way.” And Martin Luther King said to his lieutenants as he walked out of the meeting, “We’re just going to have to make him do it.”
And that’s where we are right now. We know that President Biden understands the importance of stopping these bills, but what we haven’t seen is him actually call on the Senate to get the job done. President Trump called on the Senate to create a carveout in the filibuster to pack the courts with — the Supreme Court with far-right-wing justices. Joe Biden can certainly do that to save our democracy.
So, you know, that’s — and then, when you go back to Reagan and the anti-apartheid protests, Joe Madison, who was one of the leaders of those, who is a SiriusXM radio host, is now on a hunger strike again, calling on Joe Biden to simply stand up and call on the Senate to create a path for an up-or-down vote on these bills. We believe that majorities matter. And if they do, then they should matter in the U.S. Senate. We have the votes. The bills should be passed.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the efforts by Republicans in state after state to turn back the voting rights of people across the country, your concern of the most flagrant examples of this and what it will mean for the elections coming next year and then the presidential elections of a couple years down the road?
BEN JEALOUS: In general, these bills are meant to make it harder for people to vote. The most extreme thing we’ve seen is actually state legislatures give themselves the power to ultimately overturn entire statewide elections and impose their will on the people of their own state. It’s the most anti-democratic thing that I’ve ever seen.
And what troubles me—now, my grandmother turned 105 this week. Her grandfather was born into slavery, and he was one of the last Blacks to serve in Virginia during Reconstruction in the state Legislature. And my grandmother carries the pain that her grandfather had of watching his colleagues vote to suppress his constituents to ensure that men like him could never serve in office again.
And in all of my fighting against incursions on voting rights in our country, what I’ve never experienced before this year is colleagues calling me and saying, “I may not run statewide, because I am worried that my state’s legislature will overturn the election if they don’t like the result.” That’s something that has simply never happened in the history of U.S. democracy before, and it should be troubling all of us. That’s why these bills have to be passed.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Ben, describe what happens when you go outside the White House, and talk about why you’re going there.
BEN JEALOUS: Yeah, what we’ve seen is that these protests keep growing. The first time, no one got arrested. The second time, it was five people. The third time, it was 25 people. Last time, it was 62 people. Today, we have over 150 that have signed up, and we’re expecting buses more coming in from places like Detroit and Georgia, and we expect that many people coming off of those buses will want to get arrested, too.
What people understand is that our democracy is being harmed in a profound way. And if these bills are not passed by Christmas, then redistricting next year will be done in a way that will be incredibly undemocratic, incredibly partisan, incredibly gerrymandered. This is our last chance to really, quite frankly, get to a place that for the next decade we will actually have districts that reflect the people of the state and not the ambitions of the politicians who run those states now.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, we should comment we’re running video of the protests. Joe Madison, the well-known talk show host, is on hunger fast right now around these issues, around these bills.