Since Republicans in the Senate locked arms to block debate on legislation to protect voting rights, the folks I look to for moral leadership in the public sqaure have been getting arrested in Washington, DC. First, it was Rev. Jesse Jackson and Bishop William J. Barber, standing with poor and low-income people from Appalachia who said that voter suppression that targets Black people hurts poor white people too. Then, last week, Barbara Williams-Skinner and a delegation of Black women protested in the Senate Hart building, saying the same: voter suppression and lies about voter fraud may be aimed at Black people, but their true victim is democracy. Hearing their call and following their leadership, 100 women stepped forward to risk arrest in DC today. They are asking us all to join them in the moral struggle of our time.
An unprecedented surge of voter participation in 2018 and 2020 created majorities in the House and Senate that claim to support policies which enjoy overwhelming popular support: federal protection of voting rights, a $15 minimum wage, universal access to healthcare, comprehensive immigration reform and investment in sustainable infrastructure. President Biden says these are the policy priorities of the White House. But none of these policies has been enacted because of the interposition and nullification of Senate Republicans who represent an extreme minority.
So-called moderates in the Senate who continue to talk about compromise are not defending the institutions of democracy. They are insisting upon the right of arsonists to argue their case while our nation’s house is on fire. Climate activists who know that we have nine years to address the climate crisis have emphasized the urgency of this moment, taking direct action and putting their bodies on the line to insist that we cannot compromise with climate science deniers. But their point about climate policy is inextricably connected to the struggle for democracy in this moment. If we cannot refuse cooperation with voter suppression now, we have no hope of representation in the coming decade that will work to address the interconnected crises of climate catastrophe, inequality, systemic racism, and militarism.
From the Declaration of Independence to the struggle for Reconstruction to the civil rights movement that gave us the Voting Rights Act, our fellow Americans who have led us toward a more perfect union have not pressed forward through compromise, but by insisting that the fundamental principle of equality is non-negotiable. The abolitionists did not win their struggle for human freedom by accommodating Southern slaveholders and Northern accommodationists who defended the property rights of their Southern friends. “On this subject, I cannot be moderate,” William Lloyd Garrison wrote in the first issue of his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. “Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm… tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present.”
If we recognize the urgency of the moment we face, we must also acknowledge that compromise with those whose only goal is obstruction is, in fact, capitulation to their plans. Every person has a right to equal protection under the law. When this right is compromised, we do not have a democracy. America’s true Independence Day was when the 14th and 15th amendments redeemed our Constitution from its pro slavery construction and made a way for the nation to be born again and again through the Women’s Suffrage Movement, The Labor Movement, and the Civil Rights Movement. No democracy can be to true to its promise of a universal right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” until workers are paid a living wage and have access to education, healthcare, affordable housing and clean drinking water.
The current crisis in our democracy is not a debate about which policies best protect the right of every American to vote. Senate Republicans have cast their votes and clarified that they are not interested in that debate. The current crisis is about whether we the people can muster the will to stand up to corporate interests and obstructionists to demand that the majorities we elected to represent us act on our behalf.
This is why the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, has announced a season of non-violent moral direct action. Through weekly Moral Mondays this summer, we aim to escalate the public demand for action, and we hope others will join and take up other days to demand that the Senate forgo the filibuster and act to defend democracy and raise the minimum wage before the 56thanniversary of the Voting Rights Act on August 6th. If Mitch McConnell can put Supreme Court justices on the bench for lifetime appointment with 51 votes, then we must demand that 51 votes be used to save the democracy, insure protection against voter suppression, and pay people a living wage.
Now is not the time for compromise. The battle for democracy demands nonviolent moral direct action and civil disobedience, if necessary. We are in the birth pains of a Third Reconstruction, and a more perfect union is possible if we push together. But we must not be naïve. The forces we are up against aim to force a still birth through inaction. Only definitive action to declare independence from the tyranny of McConnell’s obstruction can revive the heart of American democracy.