By Dean Obeidallah
Legendary Black radio host Joe Madison is two weeks into a hunger strike that could become a risk to his health. Madison, 72, is doing it for one reason: To pressure President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress to pass voting rights legislation as the GOP actively works to restrict ballot access.
As Madison told CNN’s Don Lemon on Friday, “Just as food is essential for the existence of life, voting is essential for the existence of democracy.”
Madison, a civil rights activist turned SiriusXM radio host who was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2019, is so committed to the cause he is willing to put his life on the line. When I spoke to Madison on my own radio show a few days into his hunger strike, he shared that his wife asked him, “Are you telling me that you are willing to die for this cause?” He said he looked at her and responded with one word: “Yes.” Madison then added passionately, “This is the new civil rights movement.”
More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, no one should have to risk their life to ensure all Americans can exercise a constitutionally protected right to vote. But that’s where we are in 2021 America thanks to the GOP. It was not Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” about non-existent election fraud but his “Big Loss” in the 2020 election that has animated Republicans to pass 33 laws in 19 states since January to make it more difficult to vote. Today’s GOP won’t allow the democratic will of the people to stand in their way of acquiring and retaining political power.
The GOP’s effort to “cancel” voting rights is a threat to all Americans who believe in democracy, regardless of race. But it is a particular threat to Black Americans, who have been targeted in Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election, and who have been historically disenfranchised with Jim Crow era laws designed to make it almost impossible for them to vote without the danger of deadly violence.
Just one example is World War II veteran Maceo Snipes, who stood up to that threat when he became the only Black person to vote in the 1946 primary in Taylor County, Georgia. A few days after the election, a group of White men showed up at Snipes’ door, where they asked him to step outside. When Snipes did, they shot him. Snipes later died from the shooting, and charges were never brought against his killers. Mr. Snipes, though, was far from the only Black person or allies of other races who was killed in the pursuit of access to the ballot for African Americans.
The GOP’s voter suppression campaign is not only a threat to our democracy today but it’s also an insult to the memory of Snipes and all others who have toiled, bled and died simply for the right to cast a ballot.
In his first speech after defeating Trump in the 2020 election, President Biden credited Black voters for being a large part of his win. “The African American community stood up again for me,” he said of the community that voted nearly 90 percent in his favor in last year’s election. He then pledged, “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.”
Countless callers to my radio show who are Black have cited that line to express their disappointment in Biden’s failing to have their backs on voting rights. Instead, Biden has been laser-focused for months on his infrastructure and social safety net legislation. But what’s the use of shining bridges if you don’t have a functioning democracy? With Biden’s success last week in both signing the bipartisan infrastructure bill into law and his broader Build Back Better bill passing the House, he must now make voting rights reform his public priority.
To be fair, the Democrats in the House already passed two different voting rights bills this year, the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. But Republicans in the Senate have blocked progress on both.
There has also been a glimmer of hope in recent months with the Senate Democrats drafting the Freedom to Vote Act, which would provide a national standard for federal elections as well as end partisan gerrymandering. All 50 Democratic Senators supported the bill, meaning this could pass if brought to a vote with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie. But due to the filibuster requiring 10 GOP Senators to consent to even allow a vote, this measure has been blocked with not one Republican senator in support. You can see why former President Barack Obama last year called the filibuster a “Jim Crow relic,” as the GOP is now using it to block legislation that would protect against voter suppression.
The Democrats’ failure to make voting rights a top priority may also explain why, in the recent Virginia gubernatorial race, Black voters were a smaller percentage of the electorate (16%) than in 2020 (18%), and only 86% voted for the Democratic candidate compared to 89% who went for Biden in 2020. In a close election, this kind of drop-off can decide the winner.
In 2021, who would have thought — as Joe Madison put it — that we’d be engaged in a “new civil rights movement”? But this is where our nation finds itself as the GOP rejects a robust democracy in the pursuit of electoral autocracy.
It’s time President Biden and the Democrats make voting rights the top issue in 2022. Biden should travel the country selling it, in addition to publicly — and very doggedly — pressuring Senate Democrats to end the filibuster. Biden owes that to the Black community who supported him, and to all Americans who believe that their vote and their voice matters.