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MLK Jr.'s words about the filibuster almost 60 years ago is a good reminder for us today

As the GOP kills through filibuster legislation to expand voting rights, MLK Jr.'s take on the "historical quirk" reminds us why it's still in use.

MLK Jr.'s words about the filibuster almost 60 years ago is a good reminder for us today
Image Source: Photo by John Goodwin/Getty Images

In the year 1963, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Press Conference USA, a US Information Agency (USIA) series that was distributed internationally. During the press conference, he was interviewed by four journalists. One journalist in particular asked MLK Jr. how he would feel about then-President John F. Kennedy's "far-reaching" civil rights bill going to a vote. While he noted that the bill was by far the strongest presented by any President thus far, he argued that a small minority of "misguided Senators" would do everything in their power—deploying the use of the filibuster, especially—to shoot it down. Today, as the GOP rejects legislation that would expand voting rights and kill the filibuster, MLK Jr.'s words stand as a reminder of why it is still in utilization.


"This would certainly be all right with me because the vast majority of people in the United States would vote favorably for such a bill," the civil rights leader responded when asked about JFK's bill. "I think the tragedy is that we have a Congress with a Senate that has a minority of misguided senators who will use the filibuster to keep the majority of people from even voting. They won't let the majority Senator vote. Certainly, they would not want the majority of people to vote because they know that they do not represent the majority of American people. They represent in their own States a very small minority." MLK Jr. quoted the example of Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, who at the time represented a very small minority of the number of people who lived in that State. He argued that this was the case across the South.


MLK Jr. vowed to fight the filibuster when the bill went to a vote. He explained, "I think there will be, I'm sure, a filibuster. We will protest this, lobby in Washington, seeking to get Congressmen, Senators, to stand up in a very firm, forthright manner with determination to see this bill through. We want to enter the March on Washington on the 20th of August, at which time, we will take the stand, letting the nation and the world know that we are determined to see civil rights legislation. Beyond this, we need to wait it out and see what happens."


Last week, Republicans filibustered the Freedom to Vote Act, a pared-back voting rights package pushed by Democratic Senator Joe Manchin. The vote, the third in a row this year, hence failed. Among other proposals, the Act would bring changes to campaign finance law, establish redistricting rules to curb gerrymandering, mandate automatic voter registration, and build stronger protections against foreign interference in elections. It comes as no surprise therefore that the GOP would kill the legislation using a filibuster.


The filibuster, referred to as a historical quirk, is a procedural rule in the Senate that requires 60 votes to bring a bill to a vote. Increasingly, it has been utilized as a means to obstruct legislation parties oppose, intensifying gridlock and partisanship on Capitol Hill. President Joe Biden, echoing the sentiments of other legislators, thus indicated during a CNN Town Hall that he was open to amending the filibuster rule to pass the voting rights package "and maybe more." "We're going to have to move to the point where we fundamentally alter the filibuster," he stated. "[It] remains to be seen exactly what that means in terms of fundamentally, on whether or not we just end the filibuster straight up."


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