After Biden-Harris speeches, civil rights leaders say failure is not an option in fight for voting rights

EXCLUSIVE: While some celebrate Biden’s full-throated endorsement to get rid of the filibuster to pass voting rights bills, others say his soaring speech sounded more like a wish without a plan

The fast-approaching Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the holiday commemorating the life of one of the world’s most recognized Black freedom fighters is shaping up to be a critical moment of truth about the health of American democracy, particularly as the Biden White House, Democrats in Congress make a forceful push for federal voting rights legislation in the face of voter suppression bills passed into law across the country.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris arrive to speak to a crowd at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, part of both Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University on January 11, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

“The next few days, when these bills come to a vote, will mark a turning point in this nation. Will we choose democracy over autocracy, light over shadow, justice over injustice? I know where I stand. I will not yield. I will not flinch,” said an impassioned President Joe Biden during his voting rights speech on Tuesday in Atlanta, Georgia.

“I will defend your right to vote and our democracy against all enemies foreign and domestic. And so the question is where will the institution of the United States Senate stand?”

Vice President Kamala Harris framed the fight for voting rights in no uncertain terms. 

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks to a crowd at the Atlanta University Center Consortium, part of both Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University on January 11, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Megan Varner/Getty Images)

“We must not be deceived into thinking a law that makes it more difficult for students to vote is normal. We must not be deceived into thinking a law that makes it illegal to help a voter with a disability vote-by-mail is normal,” said Vice President Harris, sharing the stage with students from the Atlanta University Center. “There is nothing normal about a law that makes it illegal to pass out water or food to people standing in long voting lines.”

Several national civil rights leaders shared their immediate reactions to President Biden and Vice President Harris’s remarks with theGrio. They were pleased with the speech, frustrated with the pace of progress on the issue to varying degrees, but none would entertain failure as an option.

“This is paralyzing America and we got to put pressure on and can’t be nice about it. I think that tonight was one of the ways that he’s shown that he will fight,” said Rev. Al Sharpton of National Action Network. “He cannot just sit back and let them continue to balk. I’m talking about the other Democrats. Tonight, what he did was show that he will stand up for the people and that’s what people want.”

Cilvil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton speaks at a press conference on voting rights outside of the U.S. Capitol on September 13, 2021 in Washington, DC. Sharpton spoke on the need to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Restoration Act, the For The People Act, and the Washington, D.C. Admission Act. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

“Since the beginning of this administration, we have urged the Biden-Harris Administration to use every possible tool at its disposal and apply the full influence of the bully pulpit to advocate toward the passage of The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom To Vote Act,” said Melanie L. Campbell, president & CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and Convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable.

“As we have seen today, on the heels of Martin Luther King Holiday, that influence also includes taking that message to the communities most impacted by voter suppression and election subversion.”

Both candidate and President Biden have often framed the fight for voting rights as an extension of the fight for the soul of America. However, mixed reactions from civil rights leaders inside and outside the Beltway reveal that this fight is just as much about the conscience of United States Senators on both sides of the aisle.

“Our democracy stands in its final hour,” said Derrick Johnson, president & CEO of NAACP. “Unless President Biden applies the same level of urgency around voting rights as he did for BBB and infrastructure, America may soon be unrecognizable.”

While grassroots critics of the president’s leadership on voting rights celebrate his full-throated endorsement to change the Senate rule to get rid of the filibuster, some say his soaring speech sounded more like a wish without a plan. To them it was at odds with the U.S. Senate alumni that made his experience on Capitol Hill into a major governing asset on the campaign trail.

“Here’s the deal, he stood up there and he waxed nostalgic about his 36 years career as a member of the upper chamber. That was the crux of his campaign. His pitch to the American people is that he knows how to govern, he was a legislator, he knows how to get things done, and knows how to bring about consensus,” said Kendra Cotton of New Georgia Project Action Fund.

“We heard that ad nauseam on the campaign trail and now you’re in office. We here in Georgia did what we were supposed to do, we delivered the presidency, now we need him to deliver on outcomes.”

Though Stacey Abrams — voting rights advocate and Democratic candidate for Georgia governor — was noticeably absent from the sizable presidential delegation of elected officials and national civil rights leaders, her organization Fair Fight Action Fund released a statement by tweet in solidarity with several GA-based organizations late Tuesday.

In this Nov. 2, 2020, file photo Stacey Abrams speaks to Biden supporters as they wait for former President Barack Obama to arrive and speak at a rally as he campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden at Turner Field in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

“We appreciate the President of the United States and Vice President amplifying the urgency of protecting our freedom to vote … Now it is time for Senators – specifically Senator Joe Manchin and Senator Sinema – to heed the Administration’s call to action. It’s past time to #RestoreTheSenate and pass the #FreedomToVoteAct and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act,” read the statement.

“In the 2020 election, Black, Brown, and young Georgia voters overcame unacceptable obstacles – put in place by anti-voter lawmakers – to turn out in record numbers and their voices heard. Without action, Republican controlled state legislatures will continue to pass – by a simple majority – extreme anti-voter laws that will block access to the ballot box and dramatically undermine our democratic institutions.” 

According to a recent NBC News review of White House events and transcripts, Tuesday’s voting rights event only marks the second event of Biden’s presidency solely dedicated to voting rights compared to 39 events promoting Build Back Better/Infrastructure, and 61 COVID-related events. 

Some might say better late than never, others might say quality over quantity, but Cotton of the New Georgia Project Action Fund says “they need to spend their frequent flyer miles going to West Virginia and Arizona. What are you coming to Georgia for? Go to West Virginia and go to Arizona to talk to them.”

Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema (Photo: Getty Images)

While the White House contemplates taking the fight to the home states of the two Democratic Senate holdouts and potentially to the home states of the 16 Republican senators who voted for the last voting rights reauthorization under George W. Bush in 2006, Rev. Sharpton best summed up what Americans can only hope Senators of conscience will be contemplating.

“Now the question becomes whether the Democrats in the Senate, Manchin and all, are going to vote against a sitting Democratic president on Martin Luther King holiday,” said Rev. Sharpton. “How history will record them, I don’t think they can justify that. I think this is the kind of definitive statement we need at this time.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer reportedly said that the Senate will act as soon as Wednesday to attempt to again pass voting rights legislation.

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