By Reginald T. Jackson
It has been less than a week since President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris came to Atlanta and gave speeches supporting federal legislation to protect and ensure voting rights. Now the legislation is as good as dead. It happened that quickly, but many of us in Georgia saw it coming a long way off.
African Americans, and most specifically faith leaders, have cried out during the last year, challenging various racist anti-voting bills — and we have heard virtually nothing from the White House or the Democratic Party.
This lack of response, especially at the local level, has created concern within the Black community, as well as political apathy: In November’s governor’s race in Virginia, for instance, Black voters made up 16 percent of the electorate, compared with 20 percent four years earlier. In recent months, Georgia’s AME churches and other denominations have held virtual town halls of thousands of local faith leaders to discuss what is happening in Georgia. What we hear from our communities is clear: The late-to-the-game D.C.-focused strategy allowed extremists to march state to state and change our local election laws. It has been far too passive and does not represent the “good trouble” John Lewis preached.
After all, it has been 10 long months since Georgia Republicans — following the historic victories of Joe Biden and Senate Democrats in the state — passed the “Election Integrity Act,” which will make it harder for many African Americans and people of color to vote. Among other things, it limits the ability to request absentee ballots and minimizes other voting opportunities. Last week, in their speeches, Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris strongly and passionately denounced the law. But as they spoke, I kept asking myself where had that strength and passion been during the past 10 months? We saw the administration’s strong commitment on behalf of the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act, but not on voting rights. The White House slept on voting rights — and now our very democracy is at risk.
Being a native Delawarean, I know Mr. Biden and worked on several of his campaigns for the U.S. Senate. No one should ever question his commitment to civil rights or the African American community. He is a genuine and great public servant.
However, Mr. Biden, having been a member of the Senate for 36 years, wrongly thought the solution to ensuring voting rights lay in Washington, D.C. He expected elected officials would work across the aisle to pass meaningful legislation, as they often did when he was a senator. But, as so many of us have witnessed in recent years, Joe Biden’s Senate simply does not exist anymore. Instead, extremist Trump loyalists, desperate to keep their power, began an efficient and well-funded campaign to minimize Black and brown voters, first in Georgia, and then, in a domino effect, in state legislatures across the country.
First, President Biden must show his strength as a leader. The American people have little respect or patience for a weak leader, but they will support and stand with a strong one. Extreme Trump loyalists have been gutting voting rights with an ax, while Democrats have tried to defend them with a butter knife.
It’s time for Mr. Biden to show the 50 senators who reliably back the Democratic agenda that the nation did not elect 51 presidents. He needs to use his powers as president to show that opposing him comes with consequences, not unlike how President Johnson played hardball during negotiations on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Neither friendships nor history with the Senate has worked, and inaction is unacceptable, so Mr. Biden must now draw a line in the sand. Our elected officials in Washington need the president to sign their bills, approve funding for their local projects, and secure their nominations for appointments. If senators are not going to support this top priority of the Biden administration, then the president needs to make clear that democracy will come first, before their own special projects, interests and priorities.
Second, the White House and the Democratic Party need to create a massive education campaign on the changes that have been made to our local voting rights laws. The reality is that most people still do not know what’s happening. Building this narrative cannot be done with one trip to Georgia or with one speech, nor will it be done with overzealous rhetoric. This fight must be about educating and informing people, not politics as usual. Mr. Biden and his administration need to consistently share with the American people what these new pieces of anti-voting legislation across the country are doing to our democracy and to our people. He must share the stories of those who will now struggle to exercise their democratic right. The facts must be showcased until every American understands what has occurred over the past year.
Third, the president needs to move the conversation on voting rights away from the failed Senate Democratic caucus and toward an energized voter registration effort that builds on what was achieved in Georgia, Arizona and other states in 2020. While there never is going to be a quick fix for what extremists have done to our democracy over the last year, we have to organize to counter the new roadblocks. Mr. Biden’s legislative efforts must transition to a nationwide campaign to register voters and help people make plans to vote. Unlike what happened during the last year, there needs to be much more consistent communication, coordination, engagement and support between the White House and those promoting and defending our democracy at the local level.
Our collective history prepares Black and brown voters for potential voting battles on Election Day, and it’s imperative that our communities take on even greater responsibility in 2022. It is incumbent that African Americans not allow the events of the last year to create apathy in 2022. But the historic challenge we now face must also be extended to President Biden.
As we observe the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday, let us remember his words, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Mr. President, at this historic moment, I have great confidence that you are strong enough, passionate enough and love this country enough to lead this army. But we need you to lead this fight as our president, not as a senator. This must not be the end of our fight; it needs to be our beginning. And to paraphrase King once again, please, listen to your conscience, and do what you know to be right. Lead us in the fight to save our great democracy — and we will follow.
Bishop Jackson is the presiding prelate of the 6th Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, which comprises 534 Georgia churches, totaling more than 90,000 parishioners.