One, the son of a revered civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; the other, grandson of an equally revered labor leader, Cesar Chavez, whose work coined “Si se puede.”
Together, Martin Luther King III and Alejandro Chavez are leading a nationwide push to pass federal voting rights legislation, against a wave of voter suppression laws by states.
They’re spearheading the Aug. 28 “March On For Voting Rights,” expected to draw thousands to Washington, D.C., and four states where voting rights are under attack — on the 58th anniversary of the 1963 March On Washington led by the younger King’s father.
Satellite marches and other events are planned simultaneously in cities nationwide.
Organizers in Chicago are planning a virtual event, the pair shared with the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday, reflecting on the continuing fight for civil rights and on each of their efforts to carry the heavy baton passed to them by their historic lineage.
“What elected officials in many states have done around this nation, including the states where our five flagship marches are taking place, is introduce over 400 bills to suppress voting rights,” said Martin Luther King III, chairman of the board of his family’s civil rights organization, the Drum Major Institute. “More than 18 states have passed legislation, and that number is growing,” King said of the need for the “For The People Act” facing stiff GOP opposition in the U.S. Senate.
Senate Republicans again blocked attempts by Democrats to advance the voting rights package that counters those state-level voter suppression laws in the early hours of Wednesday morning. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) stymied efforts by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to even bring to debate the bill the Biden administration has described as priority.
“So what has to happen is the majority of people of good will must come together and demand that our democracy is saved,” said King.
“My father used to say that ‘A voteless people is a powerless people,’ and that the most important step we can take is that short step to the ballot box. That is certainly critically true today, but it becomes very difficult when things are put in place to reduce the number of polling places, to reduce the number of days to vote.”
Such bills began rippling through the nation in January, introduced by Republicans in now 48 state legislatures, in response to the record turnout in the 2020 election and former President Donald Trump’s big lie about voter fraud — also blamed for the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
The most brazen bills target high-turnout voting methods, through measures like banning ballot drop boxes and mail-in voting; slashing early voting days and hours; restricting mail-in ballot eligibility; criminalizing the promotion of mail-in ballots and the distribution of food or water to those in long voting lines; or placing election boards under partisan control.
“We’ve encountered figures like Donald Trump before,” said Chavez, “whether it’s a Bull Connor and the horrible things he did in Alabama in the 60s, or Arizona’s ‘One-eyed Jack,’ Gov. Jack Williams, who passed legislation making it illegal for farm workers to boycott or protest. This is not our first run at this. We’ve landed this plane before.”
An activist working in grassroots organizing, Latinx outreach and movement-building, Alejandro Chavez is the child of the oldest of the late labor leader’s eight children, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who won victories for the United Farm Workers union in the 60s and 70s, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“So other than just being optimistic and having a ‘Si se puede’ attitude like my grandfather said, we know the history and our track record. We know that when we actually take the fights out of Washington, D.C., when we take it to the streets, when the cities around the country that are not being impacted participate, the people win,” the younger Chavez said.
“When we think back to Martin’s father’s work and my grandfather’s work, people were not moved by Black and Brown people only protesting. It’s when they saw young white faces, when white people stopped buying produce, when white people started attending the marches, that legislators and elected bodies started to stand up. Let’s put the pressure on.”
That type of broad, multiracial, multicity uprising was necessary to trigger America’s racial reckoning in the wake of the May 25, 2020, killing of George Floyd, the two leaders noted.
It was the same multiracial coalition that drove the 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and the younger King will again lead the Washington, D.C., march later this month.
Co-sponsored by S.E.I.U. Healthcare and Women’s March Chicago, the virtual Chicago event will feature speeches by Illinois and Chicago elected officials and organizations interspersed with a livestream of the D.C. march.
Chavez will lead an event in his hometown of Phoenix. Marches also are planned for Atlanta, Houston and Miami, with swing states Georgia and Florida, along with Texas, now hubs of the most stringent and egregious voter suppression legislation.
“I actually think that if both Martin’s father and my grandfather were around today, things may not have gotten this bad,” said Chavez, who remains optimistic that federal voting rights legislation can pass in this Congress, even against the dismantling of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by the U.S. Supreme Court Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013.
“A lot of times people forget that when people thought things weren’t possible, that’s exactly when people performed their best — whether it was a march, a fast, or a boycott, which Dr. King and my grandfather both did. I like to think if they were here right now, they’d say, ‘Look, this is our moment. This is the time when we have to get off our asses, and we have to do the work. And the 28th is just the beginning.”
The younger King said his father would be both saddened and elated in 2021.
“I think my father would be greatly disappointed in where we are at this moment, but he’d be quite proud of the young people that came together last year. He’d be proud of the fact that millions of young people in our nation actually sparked movements around the world, because George Floyd did not just impact the United States,” King said.
“All over the world, millions of people were demonstrating, saying Black Lives Matter for the first time in the history of this planet. Dad would be so proud of that.”