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Martin Luther King III's family and local activist organizations gathered Saturday at Eastlake Park in Phoenix to kick off the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend with a rally against the Senate's filibuster rule, days after Sen. Kyrsten Sinema delivered a Senate floor speech stating she would not support efforts to end the filibuster.
"What she said is, 'I support voting rights, but not as much as I support the ability of someone to take those rights away,'" said Martin Luther King III. "The filibuster is a meaningless Senate rule. It's a remnant of slavery used to block civil rights for generations."
Jan. 15 marks what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.'s 93rd birthday. His oldest living child, Martin Luther King III, was joined by his wife, Arndrea Waters King, and their daughter, Yolanda Renee King, the only granddaughter of MLK and Coretta Scott King, to urge the Senate to pass voting rights legislation.
About 1,000 attend march and rally
An estimated 1,000 people attended, according to Phoenix police. The diverse crowd showed up with banners, signs and the American flag to march in support of the legislation and against the filibuster.
Tessa and Stephanie Williams, who attended the Saturday event, marched while holding up banners calling on Sinema to protect voting rights and change the filibuster.
“I want the Senate to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and the only way that will happen is if we carve out the filibuster,” said Tessa Williams. “It’s critical to protect the right to vote. It’s under threat right now, and I think it’s much more important that Senator Sinema gets behind this legislation than hold on to the filibuster.”
Tessa Williams said she felt "betrayed" when she heard Sinema's Thursday speech in support of the filibuster rule.
“I supported her when she ran for the Senate,” said Tessa Williams. “(I felt) extremely frustrated.”
Stephanie Williams said she considers the eradication of the filibuster to be a necessary step toward democracy and deemed Sinema’s speech as "hypocritical and dangerous."
The crowd marched and chanted “deliver for voting rights” while keeping social distance and wearing masks throughout the rally.
'If Congress cannot take the action ... then any words of celebration would be hollow'
“We have long recognized that our country’s roads and bridges are crumbling and in need of repair. But our democracy is crumbling, our democracy is in need of repair,” said Pastor Warren H. Stewart, chairman of the African American Christian Clergy Coalition, in allusion to the recently passed infrastructure bill at a pre-rally speech.
The Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act was passed by the House of Representatives Thursday, and the Senate is scheduled to take it up next week where its fate is much less promising.
Unlike the House, which needs a simple-majority vote to pass legislation, the Senate requires a 60-vote super-majority to end discussion of the bill and vote, a process known as cloture.
Two Democratic senators have publicly opposed eliminating the filibuster, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, all but dooming the prospects for voting rights legislation to pass.
The ire directed toward Arizona's senior senator, who gave her latest remarks on the filibuster Thursday, was palpable in the crowd.
While Sinema has supported every voting rights bill in the Senate that has come before her, even serving as an original co-sponsor of the John R. Lewis Act, this was not sufficient for the Kings and many of those in attendance.
"How can you be for voting rights legislation, without a path to make it happen?" the Kings told The Arizona Republic in an interview.
"At the end of the day, history is not going to judge Sinema favorably in my judgment," Martin Luther King III added.
Sandy Herron is a volunteer from the Tucson chapter of Jack and Jill of America, an organization of mothers with African American kids.
"This is it. If you’re for voting rights, you’re for this bill," she said. "If you’re holding up this bill in any way, then you can no longer say that you are a proponent of voting rights."
Sarah and Tess Herron, who also attended the rally as volunteers of Jack and Jill, said they felt disappointed by Sinema’s support of the filibuster.
“There was a lot of people here who voted for her and we had hope that she was gonna help the change and she has not done that,” Sara Herron said. “We just want the right for everyone to vote fairly,” her sister added.
Jannah Scott, an African American Christian Clergy Coalition Leadership council member, told The Republic that Sinema, along with other people who are putting an obstacle in the way of voting rights, should not partake in the "celebration" of MLK Day while voting rights legislation remains stalled in the Senate.
"If Congress cannot take the action that only they can take, then any words of celebration would be hollow ... Sinema should go sit down and be quiet and let people do the service, let ... pastors and clergy speak the platitudes of Dr. King that he deserves."
More about the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act
Originally two separate pieces of proposed legislation in the Senate, the newly combined bill includes components of both the Freedom to Vote Act and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The House-passed version of the bill includes reforms to make voting more accessible, like providing baseline criteria for all states to follow for early voting and restoring elements of the Voting Rights Act that the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder.
In the controversial 5-4 ruling, the high court held that the selected localities and states, including Arizona, primarily below the Mason-Dixon line that had a prior record of suppressing minority voters, would no longer need the federal approval previously required to change their voting regulations.
In 2020, the Supreme Court further restricted voting rights in its decision on Brnovich vs. Democratic National Committee, ruling in favor of Arizona in a case argued by Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich to uphold state voting measures to not count the votes of legitimate voters who cast their ballot in the wrong precinct and make it a felony for anyone besides a family member, household member or caregiver of an absentee voter to return his or her completed ballot.
National legislation, Democrats argue, is needed to stem the tide of Republican-led legislatures imposing laws that limit the ability of minority voters to participate. Since the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, 19 states, including the Grand Canyon State, have passed restrictive voting laws. There have been over 400 pieces of legislation introduced nationwide to achieve the same goals.
Martin Luther King III criticizes Sinema's support of filibuster
Standing in the way of getting this legislation passed is the filibuster, a procedure currently being used by Senate Republicans to block its passage.
Sen. Sinema gave her latest remarks on the filibuster Thursday, saying on the Senate floor that while she supports voting rights legislation, she doesn't support ending the filibuster, which she believed would exacerbate the "disease of division" within the U.S.
"But what is the legislative filibuster other than a tool that requires new federal policy to be broadly supported by senators representing a broader cross-section of Americans — a guardrail, inevitably viewed as an obstacle by whoever holds the Senate majority, but which in reality ensures that millions of Americans represented by the minority party have a voice in the process?" Sinema said on Thursday.
Martin Luther King III expressed frustration at the supermajority required in the Senate to protect voting rights versus the simple majority support on the state level to rescind them.
"Here in Arizona, Senator Sinema has said that she supports the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act but she refuses to modify a broken Senate rule to get it passed because she thinks the real problem isn’t that our rights are being taken away; she thinks the real problem is the disease of division. She wants people to just find a way to get along.
"Senator Sinema says if the voting rights bill doesn’t get bipartisan support, it shouldn’t pass. Well, the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to slaves in 1868, that didn’t have bipartisan support. Should formally enslaved people have been denied citizenship, Senator Sinema? The 15th Amendment that gave formerly enslaved people the right to vote in 1870, that didn’t have bipartisan support. Should former slaves have been denied the right to vote, Senator Sinema? I’m just applying her logic here and showing that it’s not logical at all."
Arndrea Waters King, his wife, agreed.
"Saying you can’t save voting rights because it will require you to eliminate the filibuster is like saying you can’t put out the fire in your house because the water might ruin the carpet. What good is your carpet if your house is burned?"
Sinema's office: She supports voting rights bill
In response, Sinema's office pointed to her Senate floor speech, in which she said: "Our country’s divisions have now fueled efforts in several states that will make it more difficult for Americans to vote and undermine faith that all Americans should have in our elections and our democracy. These state laws have no place in a nation whose government is formed by free, fair, and open elections."
Sinema also said in her speech: "I share the concerns of civil rights advocates and others I have heard from in recent months about these state laws. I strongly support those efforts to contest these laws in court, and to invest significant resources into these states to better organize and stop efforts to restrict access at the ballot box. And I strongly support and will continue to vote for legislative responses to address these state laws ..."
At Saturday's march, elected Democratic officials also expressed their dissatisfaction with Sinema's position on the filibuster, including U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego.
"It’s insulting to Arizona voters to say that 'I’m for voting rights, but I’m not for opening the door to actually vote on it by being in support of the filibuster.' Also, I think we’re all very much willing to compromise and say: Why don’t we just make an exception for voting rights or civil rights issues and not use the filibuster that had been used in the past to reinforce Jim Crow laws. The fact that she’s not willing to open that, I think is what has everyone out here right now," Gallego told The Arizona Republic.
Sinema's office says that her position on the filibuster has been long-held and consistent and cited that, in comparison, approximately 30 other Democratic senators penned a letter to the Senate leadership in defense of the filibuster in 2017.
In a June 21, 2021, op-ed for the Washington Post, Sinema argued that Democrats have used the filibuster in the past to prevent passage of laws they oppose and explained that the filibuster is also a way to prevent passage of extreme bills on both sides of the aisle.
"To those who want to eliminate the legislative filibuster to pass the For the People Act (voting-rights legislation I support and have co-sponsored), I would ask: Would it be good for our country if we did, only to see that legislation rescinded a few years from now and replaced by a nationwide voter-ID law or restrictions on voting by mail in federal elections, over the objections of the minority?” she wrote.
In response to Sinema's assertion that the filibuster has been used by Democrats to prevented unwanted legislation, like those restricting abortions, from passing, Gallego said: "Abortion rights are already going to be eroded probably in June by the Supreme Court, and in order for us to protect it, we’re probably not going to have a chance to do that because we won’t be able to pass it through a filibuster the right to have an abortion. I think that is a very feeble argument."
Tara Kavaler is a politics reporter at The Arizona Republic. She can be reached by email at email@example.com. Reach breaking news reporter Laura Daniella Sepulveda at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @lauradNews.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: MLK family and activists gather against filibuster in Phoenix