March On For Washington And Voting Rights Presses Congress And Biden More than 50 years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, activists are marching to fight federal legislation that they say will make it harder to vote.

Fed Up With Inaction Over Voting Rights, Thousands March On Washington

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1031379684/1031613198" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Activists plan to rally in many cities this weekend on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. The cause in 1963 was civil rights, including voting rights. The cause in 2021 is the state-by-state battle over voting rules. Yesterday, the Texas House passed a Republican bill to alter those rules in ways that Democrats say will make it harder for many people to vote. The bill now goes to the state Senate. Democrats had walked out to block that legislation, but they could not finally stop it. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: More than 50 years after Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and reminded America of the fierce urgency of now, activists are hoping to recreate the power of that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING III: We know that when people engage, we create nonviolent street heat. Action occurs.

SUMMERS: That's Martin Luther King III, the Reverend King's eldest son and an organizer of March On For Washington and Voting Rights. Democrats have so far been unable to pass legislation to combat new laws in Republican-led states and say that they are intended to make it harder to vote, particularly for voters of color and young people. Democrats fear that the wave of new Republican laws could make it harder for many Americans to vote in the 2022 midterm elections. This is Congresswoman Terri Sewell of Alabama.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERRI SEWELL: Old battles have become new again. No longer are we allowed or or told that we have to count how many bubbles there are in order to register to vote or be able to recite, you know, the 67 counties in Alabama in order to vote. But I want you to know that the modern-day barriers to voting are no less pernicious...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's right. That's right.

SEWELL: ...Than those literacy tests and those poll tax.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's right.

SUMMERS: Underscoring the sense of urgency that Democrats feel, House lawmakers return to Washington for a rare August session. They passed the voting rights legislation named for the late congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis of Georgia. The bill would strengthen the Voting Rights Act, which was weakened by several Supreme Court rulings. After the House passed the John Lewis bill, President Biden said the legislation would protect a sacred right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The House has acted. The Senate also has to join them to send this important bill to my desk. And the Senate has to move forward on the People's Act (ph), critical legislation to protect our democracy and the right to vote. We need both of those election bills.

SUMMERS: Supporters say that both the Lewis bill and the For The People Act are necessary to protect voting rights. The For The People Act would set new national standards, making it easier to vote. It would end partisan gerrymandering and increase transparency in campaign finance. Democrats don't have enough votes in the evenly divided Senate to overcome opposition from Republicans, who have said these voting bills are overreaching and partisan. Republicans can block both bills because of the Senate rule known as the filibuster, which activists and some Democrats want to get rid of.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Chanting) Hey, hey, hey Joe, the filibuster's got to go. Hey, hey...

SUMMERS: It's not Biden's decision whether to change the filibuster. It would require all 50 Democratic senators to agree on a change to Senate rules. At least two key moderates, senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they do not. Activists, though, say that Biden's influence could change the dynamics. Ben Jealous is the president of People for the American Way.

BEN JEALOUS: The only way to get Manchin and Sinema to stop being a problem is for the president of the United States to put every bit of pressure on them and to call on them and their colleagues publicly to remove the filibuster as an obstacle.

SUMMERS: The activists descending on Washington tomorrow say they want to see Biden's actions match the urgency of his words. Juana Summers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "DYING LIGHT")

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.