Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and told a quarter of a million people of his dream of an American future where race didn’t matter in judging your fellow man, only the content of his character.
King, who spent most of his life as a Republican, never imagined that his descendents in the civil rights movement would make every effort to ensure that race would become the only thing that mattered and that one’s character was judged by politics, and not on any moral basis that King would have recognized.
Partisanship made a rude intrusion on a ceremony marking the “March on Washington” that the civil rights icon led. It could be seen as inevitable, given the fractured, dysfunctional nature of our politics, that the solemnity that should attend such an occasion was shattered by venomous lies and wildly exaggerated hyperbole, making a mockery of King’s message. It was the kind of politics that King, a political genius, didn’t need to practice. He had an unerring sense of the moral authority of the message he was bringing and the ability to project powerful images of sin and redemption that were compelling enough to literally move millions of people to change the country.
Not so today. Instead of moral truths, we got political lies. Instead of a spirit of tolerance, we got fearmongering and demagoguery.
Rep. John L. Lewis, a genuine hero of the movement who endured the dogs, the water cannons, the billy clubs, and the hate of southern authorities, paying for his activism by shedding blood for the cause, brought himself down to gutter level when he told the crowd at the memorial, “I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us!”
You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down. You have to stand up, speak up, speak out and get in the way. Make some noise. The vote is precious. It is almost sacred. It’s the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society and we’ve got to use it. Back in 1963 we didn’t have a cellular telephone, iPad, iPod, but we used what we had to bring about a non-violent revolution. And I said to all of the young people, you must get out there and push and pull and make America what America should be for all of us. We must say to the Congress, “Fix the Voting Rights Act.”
Accusing the Supreme Court of taking the right to vote away from anyone is a lie. Lewis knows full well that’s not what the Supreme Court ruled when they abolished the section of the Voting Rights Act that allowed the federal government to oversee some states’ voting laws.
But the object here isn’t to inform, but to instill fear. Only those besotted with partisanship would claim that the court’s purpose is to prevent people from voting. It’s utter nonsense.
Lewis got it right when he claimed the vote is “almost sacred.” But if that were true, why fight tooth and nail to prevent that sacred event from being hijacked by fraud? I agree that there are many Republicans who do the cause of voter ID no good by claiming massive voter fraud as a reason for voter ID laws. The point isn’t the numbers of fraudulent votes, it’s the integrity of the ballot that is at issue. In that sense, even one fraudulent vote is damaging to the franchise and cheapens the process.
But to Lewis and others like Al Sharpton, the voter ID laws are “voter suppression” laws. “Our vote was soaked in the blood of martyrs,” Sharpton said, “and you cannot take it from us now.”
Mr. Sharpton, who as chief organizer gave himself the role of keynote speaker, seized the opportunity to raise the rhetorical temperature, noting that in past decades when blacks voted for Presidents Kennedy, Nixon, Bush and others, their IDs at the polls had been sufficient. “Why when we get to Obama do we need some special ID?” he said to a roar of approval.
“When we leave here we’re going to go to those states,” including North Carolina and Texas, he continued. “And when they ask us for our voter ID, take out a photo of Medgar Evers.” Take out other photos of slain civil rights activists of the ’60s “who gave their lives so we could vote,” he added. “ ‘Look at this photo. It gives you the ID of who we are.’ ”
In the 2012 election, the percentage of the black vote rose compared to 2008 when there were few voter ID laws. Where are all these disenfranchised voters? And Sharpton, who has compared voter ID laws to literacy tests and other voter suppression tactics during the Jim Crow era in the south, makes a mockery of the truth when he talks of a “special ID” needed in order to vote. There is nothing “special” about a driver’s license or state ID card. To claim otherwise is pure demagoguery — something Sharpton has a lot of expertise in.
Other speakers raised the specter of Trayvon Martin and New York city’s “stop and frisk” practice. But with all this fearmongering, what got lost in the demagoguery was the original message of Dr. King. It was a message steeped in the Christian tradition of the brotherhood of man — not so much “color blindness” but rather “color tolerance.” King had no illusions about the difficulties that lay ahead (nor his own vulnerabilities). As he eerily proclaimed the night before he was murdered:
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
That kind of courage and vision was missing from the speakers on the Mall today.