5 Times Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Fought For Voting Rights
Dr. King saw the right to vote as a fundamental aspect of Black freedom.
January 14, 2022 at 5:14 pm
This year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day comes in the midst of the most heated fight over voting rights since Dr. King was alive. With states passing restrictive voting legislation and national voting protections being blocked by Republicans and a couple of conservative Democratic senators, the country is facing its worst voting rights crisis in nearly 60 years. Because of dire circumstances, the King family has asked that instead of celebrating Dr. King this year, we use the commemoration of his birthday to urge Congress and the Biden administration to finally pass much-needed voting rights protections. In honor of this request, we look at five times Dr. King advocated for voting rights during his life.
1. Dr. King gained national prominence with his 1957 “Give Us the Ballot” speech
Early in the Civil Rights campaign, Dr. King led a protest at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, organized to mark the third anniversary of the anti-segregation Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling, sought to expand the movement by demanding that Black voting rights be guaranteed and protected. Dr. King, in his first national speech, delivered the final address of the march with what became known as his “Give Us the Ballot” speech.
In the speech, Dr. King painted voting rights as crucial for other achievements in Black equality. Repeating the refrain “give us the ballot,” he laid out how the right to vote would allow Black Americans to choose politicians and judges who represented our interests and allow for progress on issues such as anti-lynching legislation or implementing school desegregation. Video clips from Dr. King’s remarks remain available, as do audio recordings of the entire speech.
Though the speech did not immediately lead to notable advances for voting rights, its impact lasted for years after the march. The event catapulted Dr. King to the head of the civil rights movement; one reporter wrote that the event made Dr. King “the No. 1 leader of 16 million Negroes.” Additionally, the demonstration was organized and conducted by a number of people who would later be instrumental in the 1963 March on Washington, including Mahalia Jackson, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.
2. The place of voting rights in MLK’s 1963 “Dream”
The March on Washington remains the pivotal point of the civil rights movement, crowned by Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. As Blavity previously reported, the speech is mostly remembered for its rousing second half, which lays out the dream metaphor in soaring, idealistic language. Often forgotten is the first half of the 16-minute address, which lays out the grievances of the Black community in much more practical and gritty terms. Though Dr. King only speaks directly of voting in a single line, he does so amid laying out a series of issues facing the Black community. Here is the relevant passage, with the relevant text on voting highlighted.
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: "For Whites Only." We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until "justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
The issues of Black people being denied the opportunity to vote or disillusioned with the seeming ineffectiveness of their vote — as well as police brutality, lack of upward mobility and other challenges facing the Black community — all seem as relevant in 2022 as they did in 1963. The text of the “I Have a Dream" speech can be found here, and the address can be viewed below.
3. The 1965 Selma campaign made voting rights central to the movement
One of the most famous campaigns of the civil rights movement was the Selma Voting Rights Campaign. In early 1965, Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference that he led were invited to come to Selma, Alabama, and participate in a major voting rights campaign there, as Alabama had been particularly effective in suppressing the Black vote. Dr. King and SCLC worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in a multifaceted campaign that included groundwork such as voter education, largely conducted by SNCC and public demonstrations spearheaded by SCLC. For example, Dr. King and more than 200 activists were arrested at the Dallas County Courthouse on Feb. 1, 1965, when they attempted to register to vote.
Most famously, the campaign included a march from Selma to the state capital, Montgomery. On March 7, 1965, the first attempt at this march, led by SCLC’s Hosea Williams and SNCC chairperson John Lewis, was violently suppressed in an event that became known as “Bloody Sunday.” Video footage of peaceful protesters being savagely attacked and beaten dominated national news, creating outrage across the country. Meanwhile, Dr. King led a second attempt at the march on March 9, but turned the crowd back after being confronted by troopers.
The campaign became one of the signature achievements of the civil rights movement and perhaps one of its most impactful moments. President Lyndon B. Johnson made a nationally televised address on March 15 supporting the protests and urging Congress to pass a new voting rights bill that he proposed. Johnson also ordered federal troops to protect the marchers, who finally conducted their journey from Selma to Montgomery later that month.
In his speech in Montgomery, known as “How Long, Not Long" or “Our God Is Marching On,” Dr. King laid out the importance of fighting for the right to vote. “Our whole campaign in Alabama has been centered around the right to vote,” he said to the gathered audience. “In focusing the attention of the nation and the world today on the flagrant denial of the right to vote, we are exposing the very origin, the root cause, of racial segregation in the Southland.” The full text of his speech can be read here.
John Lewis went on to become a long-serving U.S. representative for the state of Georgia and a civil rights icon, with one of the current voting rights protection bills named in his honor. The Selma campaign was portrayed by director Ava DuVernay in the 2014 Oscar-winning film Selma.
4. Dr. King wrote his “Let My People Vote” letter as a final push for the Voting Rights Act of 1965
Despite Johnson’s involvement, by the summer of 1965, voting rights protection faced a stalemate eerily similar to the current standoff. At the time, it was the Senate that had passed the Voting Rights Act, which then became held up by the House. Hoping to end the stalemate, Dr. King wrote a letter that was published in the New York Amsterdam News. In his letter, remembered by its closing line, “Let my people vote,” Dr. King made the case for passing the Voting Rights Act while laying out plans to follow up the legislation with the Summer Community Organization and Political Education Project, a campaign by the SCLC “designed to involve entire communities in a coordinated program of massive voter registration, political education and community organization,” he wrote.
While laying out practical plans to enforce voting rights, Dr. King emphasized the need to pass protections first. “For to deny a person the right to exercise his political freedom at the polls,” Dr. King argues, “is no less a dastardly act as to deny a Christian the right to petition God in prayer.” The letter adds pressure by name-checking Vice President Hubert Humphrey for previously guaranteeing that the Voting Rights Act would be passed.
The text of Dr. King’s letter can be read in a reproduction posted by The Atlantic. As noted in the article, the House advanced the legislation soon after Dr. King’s letter was published, and Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law on Aug. 6.
5. “Let us march on ballot boxes,” Dr. King urged in 1966
Despite hailing from Georgia, Dr. King is believed to have given only three public speeches in neighboring South Carolina. The most famous of these remarks came on May 8, 1966, in Kingstree, S.C. Building upon the victory of the Voting Rights Act, Dr. King strongly encouraged the crowd to exercise their right to vote. He pushed the crowd to register themselves and members of their community to vote, and to turn out in force in the state’s elections.
Dr. King emphasized the importance of electing officials at the local and state level that would represent all people, including the Black populations of the Deep South. “Let us march on ballot boxes,” Dr. King repeated in a refrain that became the title for the speech. “For this is the way we’re going to straighten up the South and the nation.” Video clips of Dr. King’s South Carolina appearance can be viewed here.
In 2022, Dr. King’s family and those impacted by his legacy continue the fight for voting rights. As we remember Dr. King’s legacy, we would do well to recognize the importance he saw in promoting and protecting the rights of all Americans, and particularly Black people, to vote freely and to have their votes matter.