Voting rights take center stage on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Northeastern’s annual observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday will examine voting rights. A high-stakes legislative chess match is taking place on Capitol Hill over the issue. Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via AP Images

Nearly 60 years have passed since Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in the U.S. Capitol to watch Lyndon Johnson sign a long-sought dream into law—the rights of Black citizens to cast a ballot. Voting rights are once again top of the agenda for lawmakers in Washington. Is legislative lightning about to strike twice?

“The Voting Rights Act accomplished quite a great deal but it didn’t fix everything,” says Costas Panagopoulos, head of Northeastern’s political science department. “Expanding the franchise has been an ongoing battle in this country.”

Northeastern will explore that issue further during its annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday ceremony on Jan. 17, A Tribute to the Dream: Voting Rights and the ‘Threat to Justice Everywhere.’ The live event starts at 3 p.m. ET and will be streamed on and Facebook.

The program’s keynote speaker is a senior attorney in the civil rights division of the Justice Department, Kristen Clarke. Her office recently obtained a settlement with two former employees of a housing authority in Oklahoma who allegedly denied housing to a Black mother and her young daughter because of their race.

“We are living in a time of unprecedented challenges to civil rights,” Clarke said in a recent speech.

She will likely expound on that theme when she talks to the Northeastern community on Monday about her department’s work.

Her division recently sued Georgia and Texas over legislative measures that allegedly deny people the right to vote on account of race, unfairly reject mail ballots over paperwork errors, and create redistricting plans that dilute the votes of Hispanic and Black people.

Democrats on Capitol Hill are pushing a pair of bills—the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—that they say will thwart efforts to stymie such ballot-restricting measures. But Republicans reject the move as a federal takeover of the electoral responsibilities of the states.

Both legislative efforts are stuck in the Senate. Most Republicans are opposed, making it impossible to amass the 60 votes needed to overcome a procedural hurdle known as the filibuster. The rule has long frustrated the party in power.

Senators in the minority party—without saying a word—can simply raise their hands to object to a bill to force supporters to produce 60 votes. Critics of the so-called “silent filibuster” say one filibuster can eat up a week of the Senate’s time. Multiple filibusters consume the legislative calendar, making it impossible to address important business.

Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer has promised to hold a vote by Jan. 17 to lower the threshold to 51 instead of 60 votes for the voting-reform bills, but there is no guarantee of passage since not all 50 Democrats are on board with changing the rule.

Even still, “expansion of voting rights has long been a Democratic Party priority because the kinds of voters who are typically disenfranchised form central parts of the Democratic coalition,” Panagopoulos explains. “This is an important issue for them.”

President Joe Biden was recently in Atlanta to make the case that passing legislation is the best response to the GOP’s drive to rewrite election rules. Long a protector of Senate norms and traditions during his nearly 40 years in the chamber, Biden now supports a carve-out exemption of the filibuster specifically for voting rights.

“This is one of those defining moments,” the president said.

Civil rights activists agree. And if the carve-out exception works, it may well lead to Biden signing both measures into law, giving him an LBJ moment of his own.

Rounding out the rest of the university’s MLK Day program, Africana Studies professor Régine Jean-Charles will discuss her new book, A Trumpet of Conscience for the 21st Century: King’s Call to Justice. 

She wrote it to encourage people to think beyond King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech, and to connect the dots between King’s messages and contemporary social-justice movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

Jean-Charles will be interviewed by Margaret Burnham, university distinguished professor of law and director of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which investigates racial violence in the Jim Crow era.

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, will offer a few thoughts on how the university is confronting racial bigotry in society.

Former Huskies basketball player and electrical engineering alum Kwesi Abakah will sing on the MLK holiday program, and MBA candidate Gabriela Taveras will serve as host. She often speaks on gender wage-gap issues and is the president of a pay equity company. Taveras also is a member of the university’s Graduate Students of Color Collective.

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