Opinion: Children of civil rights icons object to new Georgia voting law

(From left to right) Dr. Bernice A. King, John-Miles Lewis, and Al Vivian
(From left to right) Dr. Bernice A. King, John-Miles Lewis, and Al Vivian

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Evil cannot permanently organize. It bears within it seeds of its own destruction.” This belief undergirds our abiding faith in America, even as legislators in Georgia and 46 other states attempt to root our nation in the oppressive weeds of yesterday through a new generation of Jim Crow voting laws. Rather than sowing seeds to provide democracy the greatest chance to grow today and bloom tomorrow, legislators are attempting to transport us back to the shameful period of American history. We cannot abide.

Georgia has a long, documented history of restricting access to the polls, especially for Black and brown voters. Too many of our lawmakers failed to take a stand, and corporations did not go far enough to ensure every citizen had fair and equitable access to the right to vote and have a voice in our shared future. The failure of corporate leaders to live up to their racial equity commitments made in the last year disregards and disrespects our fathers’ tireless work, jeopardizes the soul of Georgia, and the promise of America.

Bernice King
Bernice King

With the recent deaths of Rev. C.T. Vivian and Congressman John Lewis, as America experienced a racial reckoning, the Atlanta civic and business community rallied and committed to systemic change. The business community became vocal champions of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Yet, when the first test came to move from words to action, to stand on behalf of disenfranchised voters, there was shocking silence. Historically, companies’ growth and prosperity in Georgia required integration of democracy and free enterprise. Citigroup reported that the U.S. economy lost $16 trillion because of racism and discrimination since 2000. In short, racism is bad for business.

Al Vivian
Al Vivian

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

Expanded voting options resulted in more voter participation than in any election in American history. We proved that when access is increased, more people cast ballots. The Grand Old Party of Georgia responded by making it harder for people to vote. Under the guise of “restoring voter confidence” and “voting security,” legislators passed sweeping laws restricting access, especially for Black voters. The preamble to Georgia SB 202, passed along party lines and signed by Gov. Brian Kemp, makes it plain that lawmakers give credence to the conspiracy theory that the election was stolen; a lie debunked by two statewide ballot recounts, a statewide audit, 63 lawsuits and investigations by Republican leadership.

John-Miles Lewis
John-Miles Lewis

Georgia’s Republican leaders tout the new voter suppression law as an expansion of early voting, but in truth, the law primarily benefits counties with smaller, predominately Republican populations. Neither party should have the authority to suppress the will of citizens in the minority of any given community. Georgia and the other states’ voter suppression tactics are a new form of gerrymandering. The law results in expanding access for Republican-dominated counties and restricting voter access in Democratic strongholds with large Black populations.

Perhaps the most insidious provision in the voter suppression law grants the Republican-controlled legislature the authority to control our state and local elections boards; and removes power from the Secretary of State. This measure is designed to allow the GOP to control Democratic-dominated counties, with a target on the African American electorate. The measure presents the possibility for the GOP to overturn election results that do not meet their desired outcome. This is the antithesis of democracy by design.

The new voter suppression laws are a perversion of truth. Our democracy will be destroyed if we use blunt instruments to appease falsehoods. Advocating equitable voting rights while denying them to others is not equity; it is oppression. These new laws portending to address voting integrity fail to address the truth of Georgia’s long history of excluding people of color from the electorate. It is oppression by design. In 2021, on the day of the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, it is a great tragedy that our country still embraces exclusion and tolerates systemic racism.

We had the opportunity to take a stand and make real progress. This was an opportunity missed.

Our faith in America is unwavering. We rely on our corporate community and lawmakers to use their power and influence to protect those most vulnerable to ensure the commitments made for racial equity are not hollow words. We entreat corporate leaders and legislators to work with us and honor your commitment to building an equitable society by protecting our nation’s most fundamental right.

We are encouraged by companies like Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola, the Atlanta Dream, Atlanta Falcons, and Atlanta Hawks, and the rapid rise of other corporations that are breaking silence. We expect major corporations and chambers of commerce to fulfill the promise of racial equity by divesting future support of elected officials seeking to disenfranchise American voters; and by leveraging their considerable lobbying influence to stop voter suppression laws in other states and ensure the passage of the federal voting rights legislation.

We are inspired by the leadership of companies like Microsoft, whose President, Brad Smith said, “It’s not only right but essential for the business community to stand together in opposition to the harmful provisions and other similar legislation that may be considered elsewhere. It’s important for the business community to be principled, substantive, and concrete in explaining its concerns.”

The floodgates against voter suppression are quickly opening to cleanse the corporate conscience. It is imperative that corporations use their power to promote passage of the For the People Act (HR 1 and S 1) and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act (HR 4).

The most significant threat to our democracy is principled men and women’s voices remaining silent on this issue and failing to yield to conscience by standing against laws that restrict access to voting. As Dr. King reminds us, “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

Dr. Bernice A. King is the daughter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Al Vivian is the son of the Rev. C.T. Vivian.

John-Miles Lewis is the son of U.S. Rep. John Lewis.

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