Martin Luther King Jr

Martin Luther King, Citizens United and Driving Voters to the Polls

On a weekend that features both the third anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, it is a timely moment to "take the temperature" of our democracy. Dr. King once said, "So long as I do not firmly and irrevocably possess the right to vote, I do not possess myself." What is the status of that right today? Or, to pose a broader question: what is the status of our democracy?

In the past year I worked with a network of 1,100 African American churches and 7,000 pastors to educate, motivate, and turn out our congregations and communities on Election Day. We facilitated hundreds of thousands of voter registrations, made more than a million contacts and even transported over 27,000 people to the polls. While we are proud of the work accomplished this year, it is clear to me -- and to many who facilitated get out the vote work -- that our elections aren't working equally well for everyone. More often than not, those for whom they are not working are people of color.

One of the reasons is that Americans -- and especially Americans of color -- are questioning whether our voices can be heard over the noise of massive corporate and special interest political spending in the wake of Citizens United. In the last election, more than 1.3 billion dollars of outside money flooded the airwaves, and voters understand that politicians are paying close attention.

Last year the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law conducted a national survey on American's perceptions of Super PAC spending and the implications for our political system. An overwhelming majority of respondents (77 percent) agreed that members of Congress are "more likely to act in the interest of a group that spent millions to elect them than to act in the public interest." Americans are seeing that excessive special interest spending is overwhelming the voices and priorities of individual voters -- as well they should. I believe that this is especially true for people of color, many of whom are starkly aware of the reality of the lack of power, influence and opportunities often available to us politically.

And as Colorlines' Brentin Mock pointed out, that's all before we even set out to vote. Faith leaders on the ground all across the country who I worked with witnessed the effects of voter suppression tactics such as voter ID laws and early voting restrictions. We all remember seeing photographs of voters standing in six hour long lines until 2:00 am on election night, waiting to cast their ballots even after the presidential election had been called. And a number of new suppressive laws may go into effect this year.

A democracy in which Americans do not have a fair opportunity to have their voices heard -- whether through discriminatory voter suppression tactics or through the overwhelming influence of big money on the political system -- is not a democracy working as it should. It is a democracy in need of healing.

That's why organizers around the country are speaking out this weekend to bring attention to the interrelated attacks on our democracy today. Under the banner of Money Out/Voters In, organizers are hosting "Day of Action" events in more than 76 cities in 33 states. Some of the same faith leaders who devoted their time and energy to GOTV efforts are leading teach-ins this weekend about the dual threats of voter suppression and unlimited corporate and special interest money in politics. As African American faith leaders who value the ideals of justice and fairness, we believe it is our responsibility to advocate for a system that puts electoral power in the hands of everyday Americans rather than corporations.

Perhaps Elder Lee Harris of Jacksonville, Florida -- one of the African American faith leaders organizing voting efforts this fall -- put it best: "We've come too far and fought too hard to let anybody take away our vote again."

This post was originally published at the Huffington Post.

PFAW Foundation

Revisionist History & 'The Food Stamp President': Celebrating MLK Day with the GOP Candidates

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

The GOP presidential candidates had every right to hold a debate in South Carolina on Martin Luther King Day, Jr. Day this week, but maybe, out of a sense of self-preservation, they should have thought twice about the timing. What could have been an opportunity for the candidates to express their support for the myriad advances of the Civil Rights movement and to address the real challenges that remain instead turned into a mess of racially-charged attacks on African Americans, immigrants and the poor.

he fact that the disgraceful show took place on a day dedicated to celebrating the Civil Rights movement threw into sharp relief the narrow cultural corner into which the GOP has painted itself.

The trouble for the GOP's civil rights celebrations started early in the day. Mitt Romney spent the day campaigning in South Carolina with Kris Kobach , the prominent anti-immigrant activist who, after a stint at a nativist hate group, so-called "FAIR", helped write draconian anti-immigrant laws in Arizona and Alabama. Romney has praised Kobach's record, calling him "a true leader on securing our borders and stopping the flow of illegal immigration into this country." (Romney's choice of company should perhaps come as no surprise. Another prominent endorser who now heads the candidate's legal policy team, former Judge Robert Bork, has said the Civil Rights Act was built on "a principle of unsurpassed ugliness.")

Meanwhile, the leaders of the South Carolina GOP, including Gov. Nikki Haley, had lunch with right-wing pseudo-historian David Barton , who "led the crowd through a timeline demonstrating the role Democrats of the day played in perpetuating the existence of slavery in the United States." Telling a selective history of American racism is something of a specialty for Barton, a former Texas GOP operative. In his video "Setting the Record Straight: American History in Black & White," Barton attempts to tie the modern Democratic party to slavery, lynching and the Ku Klux Klan - while conveniently ignoring the GOP's "southern strategy" and the party realignment spurred by the Civil Rights movement, which led to many of the Democrats that he referred to becoming Republican. One can only imagine the dubious history lesson the governor and her allies were treated to before moving on to watch the night's debate.

But the GOP's offensive daytime holiday activities could not match the evening's event. Texas Gov. Rick Perry started things off by dusting off the racially charged rhetoric of the segregated south to attack the Voting Rights Act . Under the act, the Justice Department has the power to review voting law changes in states with a history of disenfranchising minorities. Perry called the DOJ's review of Texas' voter ID law an "assault" and said the rejection of a similar law in South Carolina, the home of Fort Sumter, had led the state to be "at war with the federal government." He was met with loud cheers from the audience and a big smile from Gov. Haley.

Never to be outdone, former House speaker Newt Gingrich stepped up the attack on African Americans. Asked by moderator Juan Williams about his previous dubbing of President Obama as the "food stamp president" and his insistence that he would "talk about why the African American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps," Gingrich dug in his heels , to the delight of the audience. "Can't you see that this is viewed, at a minimum as insulting to all Americans, but particularly to black Americans?" asked Williams. "No, I don't see that," Gingrich replied, to roaring applause, before repeating his call for low-income children to be put to work as janitors in their schools.

And those were just the lowlights. Romney, in response to a trick question from Rick Santorum, declared his opposition to extending voting rights to convicted felons, an issue that disproportionately affects the African American community. Later, he repeated his promise to veto the DREAM Act, which would allow the children of undocumented immigrants to build meaningful lives in the United States.

I can't presume to know what Dr. King would think of the way the GOP presidential candidates celebrated his birthday, but I can't imagine he would have enjoyed the party. Almost fifty years after the March on Washington, the leaders of a major political party are trying to curb voting rights, drinking in revisionist American history, and shamelessly exploiting racial tensions for political gain.

Martin Luther King Day isn't just a celebration of the great strides made by a previous generation -- it's a call to action for those who want to preserve and protect the values that Dr. King preached. The spectacle in South Carolina was a powerful reminder that despite how far we have come, we have a long way to go to realize Dr. King's dream.

PFAW

Perry Attacks Voting Rights Act on MLK Day

At yesterday’s Martin Luther King Day GOP debate in South Carolina, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that South Carolina is “at war with the federal government” and that Texas is “under assault” because of disputes over the states’ voter ID laws.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave the Justice Department the power to review voting law changes in states that have a history of disenfranchising minority voters. In December, the Department rejected South Carolina’s law, finding that it unfairly targeted minority voters, who are 20 percent more likely than whites to lack the required ID. Texas’ voter ID law is still under review.

The unmistakable historical echoes of Perry’s comments were disturbing, even more so because they were made on a day dedicated to celebrating the accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement. Yesterday, People For the American Way’s director of African American religious affairs, Minister Leslie Watson Malachi, wrote in the Huffington Post that many of the voting rights struggles of the Civil Rights era are still alive today:


But since 2008, our right to vote has been under an unprecedented attack. Shortly after the election, over half of Republican voters said that the presidential election had been stolen for Barack Obama by ACORN, an organization that worked to register new voters -- including many African Americans. In response to this myth, promoted by the right-wing media and politicians, state legislatures across the country have been trying to make it harder to register to vote. The most common form this takes is Voter ID laws, which, under the guise of preventing the over-hyped problem of "voter fraud," in fact keep millions of voters from the polls. These laws, which are on the books or being considered in 41 states, target voters who don't have certain types of government ID -- overwhelmingly the young, the elderly and persons of color.


What is even more discouraging than the faulty basis of these restrictive laws is where they come from. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group funded by large corporations that writes legislation for state legislators, is pushing these voter ID laws to states around the country. Why do big business interests care about restricting voting rights? Because voting is the only way those of us without millions of dollars to spend on elections can make our voices, and the issues we care about, heard.


PFAW Foundation released an extensive report last year on right-wing efforts to chip away at the voting rights of minorities, young people and the poor.
 

PFAW