Family of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Says His Holiday Is Nothing to Celebrate as Voting Rights Languish

Martin Luther King Day
Martin Luther King Jr. meeting with then-President Lyndon B. Johnson and other civil rights leaders in the White House in 1964.Getty

The family of the slain civil rights leader led a march in Washington on Martin Luther King Day.

The family of slain civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. says there is little to celebrate on the national holiday in his name because voting rights across the country are in peril.

"Be engaged. Right now, it is about protecting, preserving and expanding voting rights," King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, told CBS News. On Monday, King family members locked arms and led a march across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge into downtown Washington, D.C.

"We're calling for no celebration without legislation," said Arndrea Waters King, the wife of King III. "We can't celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. without having the legislation, the cornerstone of his legacy, the cornerstone of our democracy, solidified."

The family is pushing Congress and President Joe Biden to exert the same pressure for a federal voting rights bill that they displayed in gaining passage of a massive, $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. 

"We've seen what happens when the White House puts its full weight behind an issue," said Waters King. "What we also are saying to the president and Congress is that you delivered for bridges, now deliver for voting, whatever it takes to get that done."

Last week, the House passed legislation that linked the Freedom to Vote Act with the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. The package would create national voting standards and restore parts of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which the King family patriarch was instrumental in getting then-President Lyndon B. Johnson to promote.

"Dad and his team created the climate for voting rights to have to be addressed and so we're going to do whatever it takes," his son said. 

At least 19 states have passed 34 laws limiting voter access, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The rules include curtailing the use of voter drop boxes, imposing more stringent voting identification requirements and stopping the distribution of food and water to voters waiting in long lines. 

The voting bills are scheduled for discussion Tuesday in the Senate, where they face united Republican opposition. 

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968 at age 39, as he stood on the balcony of a Memphis motel. James Earl Ray, an admitted racist who confessed to the shooting and pleaded guilty, later recanted and claimed he was innocent and the victim of a conspiracy. He was sentenced to 99 years, and because he pleaded guilty, he was sentenced without trial. 

Ray found support with King's family, who asked that Ray be retried and that testimony be heard. King's widow, the late Coretta Scott King, publicly said, “America will never have the benefit of Mr. Ray’s trial, which would have produced new revelations about the assassination … as well as establish the facts concerning Mr. Ray’s innocence.”

Subsequent investigations determined Ray was the lone killer. He died from kidney disease at age 70 in 1998. A federal holiday in King's honor was signed into law in 1983 by then-President Ronald Reagan.

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