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We have no right to despair in the struggle for democracy

OPINION: We are only one year into a presidency that more than 81 million Americans supported. Surely we can fight for more than one legislative season before we say it’s over and we have done all we can.

Since Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema refused to join their Democratic colleagues to overcome the Republican filibuster of voting rights legislation in the Senate, friends and fellow advocates for democracy around the country have called me with a single question: Where do we look for hope now? 

I have worked to expand voting rights since I was a student organizer in college. I have resisted the Republican-led assault on democracy since the North Carolina NAACP, which I led at the time, filed the first legal challenge to an omnibus voter suppression bill after the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 Shelby vs. Holder decision. But I am, at the center of my being, a preacher. And the Scriptures that I have been called to preach remind me that in times like these, we have no right to despair.

In the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews, a “roll call” of the faithful reviews the long list of those who trusted God’s promises even when their fulfillment seemed impossible. “These were all commended for their faith,” the author concludes, “yet none of them received what had been promised.” What Hebrews celebrates about the saints may also be said of so many who have struggled to help America achieve the basic promises of democracy. Thousands of African-American soldiers spilled their blood during the Civil War while wearing the uniform of a nation that did not acknowledge their right to vote. They gave all in the struggle for democracy, yet none of them received what had been promised.

During Reconstruction, when Southern states had to ratify the 15th Amendment in order to be readmitted to the Union, more than 80 percent of African-Americans registered to vote and faced the backlash of the Ku Klux Klan, the Bulldozers and other vigilante groups that used threats and intimidation to try to dissuade Black voters from going to the polls. When casting a vote could cost them their livelihood or even their lives, they went to the polls anyway. Yet none of them received the equal protection under the law that had been promised.

Bishop William J. Barber II leads the march from Union Station in Washington with the Poor Peoples Campaign and the Unite union to protest voter suppression laws on Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. (Photo by Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

We do not know the names of many of the women and men who established voter leagues during Jim Crow, hosting meetings in beauty shops and churches at night to educate neighbors about the promises of the Reconstruction amendments. They planned for collective action that could make those promises real for decades when the filibuster in the U.S. Senate guaranteed that meaningful legislation to protect voting rights would never even be debated. Though a handful of them could register, they did not live to see a significant enough expansion of voting rights to produce candidates that represented their interests. But they did not let this stop them.

We love to celebrate heroes of the civil rights movement today, recalling the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and the organizing efforts of Ella Baker, John Lewis, Amelia Boynton and others. But we often forget how these women and men worked for years without any apparent success, often watching efforts to publicize their cause fail and seeing colleagues murdered for daring to assert what the Constitution guaranteed. At the funeral for the Rev. James Reeb, who was murdered after marching for voting rights in Selma, Dr. King entrusted his slain fellow minister to God. But for the living, he found hope in the uprising of people who refused to accept that the fight for voting rights was over. “Those at the bottom of society, shirtless and barefoot people of the land, are developing a new sense of somebodyness, carving a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of despair,” King said.

As terrible as the obstructionism of Manchin, Sinema, and their Republican colleagues may be, we have no right to despair. Those who fought for democracy before we did faced far worse with far fewer resources than we have now. But now, as then, we can find hope in the uprising of poor and low-income people who are refusing to work for poverty wages, resisting evictions in the midst of a national housing crisis and taking nonviolent direct action to demand action from their elected representatives. We have not yet persuaded 52 senators that democracy is more valuable than a Senate rule. But we have persuaded 48 of their colleagues, the vice president, and the president, many of whom did not see the urgency of this moment just a few months ago. We have not won a majority of the Senate, but poor and low-wealth voters have the power to determine the outcome of upcoming Senate elections in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. We have not yet won, but 70 to 80 percent of Americans want living wages, just voting laws, and universal access to healthcare. 

This rising majority of the people have more power than we have yet used, more potential than we have yet tapped and more forms of protest than we have yet deployed. If we refuse to be separated into single-issue advocacy groups and unite in a broad fusion coalition, we can fundamentally reshape the moral and political architecture of the nation. We are only one year into a presidency that more than 81 million Americans supported. The Montgomery movement lasted 381 straight days. Surely we can fight for more than one legislative season before we say it’s over and we have done all we can.

No, we’ve not yet received what has been promised, but we have a cloud of witnesses who are showing us what America could be. We have no right to despair when they are yet fighting. We must do everything in our power to join and support them.

Bishop William J. Barber II is the President & Senior Lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival; Bishop with The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries; Visiting Professor at Union Theological Seminary; Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and the author of four books: “We Are Called To Be A Movement”; “Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing”; “The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and The Rise of a New Justice Movement”; and “Forward Together: A Moral Message For The Nation.

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