Democracy defenders at the Martin Luther King Memorial in Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, gathering at the end of a march for the Freedom to Vote on MLK Day, 2022, Photo Credit: Linda Liang
by Nancy Latham
Last summer I asked my friend Anthony from the Elizabeth Warren campaign whether he thought the Senate would pass the big voting rights bill that the House had already passed (at the time, that bill was the For the People Act).
“No,” he said, without a moment’s hesitation.
My heart sank. Given his Warren background, I thought that I might hear a pep talk that ended with: dream big, fight hard, let’s win. I could have used that pep talk, because I was part of a group of grassroots activists from local Indivisible chapters that had just launched a series of weekly rallies in San Francisco. We vowed to rally every Friday until the For the People Act (later the Freedom to Vote Act) passed.
Our Fight Back Friday rallies were a tiny piece in a much larger advocacy push nationwide for the FTPA and later the FTVA. Beginning early in 2021, pro-democracy coalitions, advocacy organizations, and grassroots groups have collaborated on nationwide days and weeks of action, media outreach, call-in campaigns, phone-banks, sign-on letters, rallies, marches, teach-ins, direct actions to risk arrest, hunger strikes, and even a Freedom Ride! Black Voters Matter, the Declaration for American Democracy, End Citizens United, Equal Citizens, Fix Our Senate, Indivisible, League of Women Voters, March On, MoveOn, Peace Poets, People for the American Way, the Poor People’s Campaign, Protect Democracy, Public Citizen, Represent US, Sierra Club, Songs for Good, Stand Up America, the Transformative Justice Coalition, UnPAC, Until Freedom, Workers Circle, and more – all of us fought our hearts out for the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, then for the Freedom to Vote Act, and finally for a bill that merged the two: the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act.
These bills held the promise of reversing an acceleration of democratic backsliding in the U.S. Republicans took one look at the White House win – and then at the wins of Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the Georgia Senate run-off election – and were terrified of the voting power shown by a rising multiracial majority. That was their cue to intensify their efforts to lock in white supremacist minority rule.
Majority rule often simply doesn’t work well for Republicans. Their hold on elected office in many parts of the country depends not on their ability to appeal to voters, but on drawing unfair district maps, on suppressing the votes of those more likely to vote Democratic (Black and Brown communities, those living in urban areas, and young people), and on outright election sabotage. Republicans concluded that if they can’t win in a democracy, then they must preserve their power by gutting democracy itself. Because of their brazen bids for one-party rule, without bills that guaranteed the freedom to cast a meaningful vote, the country would be dangerously close to losing our democracy altogether.
With so much at risk, I recoiled at Anthony’s prediction. “Why?” I asked. His answer: “Because Manchin and Sinema like the status quo.”
Certainly I never thought the fight would be easy. I knew that plenty of Senators resisted changing the filibuster: a rule that required 60 votes (rather than 51) to pass a bill. And without fixing the filibuster (which the Senate can do with 50 votes plus the Vice President as the tie-breaker), the voting bills were doomed because no Republicans would ever vote for them.
I had hope anyway. First, Democratic Senators reluctant to change the filibuster were getting a daily earful from their constituents and experts, and the group of Democratic Senators who favored a change to the filibuster was growing. Second, I assumed that all Democrats were pro-democracy, and would do what it took to bolster it. Third, just from a political self-interest perspective, wouldn’t all Democratic Senators want their own party to have a shot at winning the House in 2022? The FTPA/FTVA would mandate the drawing of fair district maps by outlawing maps drawn to favor one party over the other. The 2022 midterms will be an uphill climb no matter what, but if all voters have easy access to the ballot in fair districts, at least Democrats would have a shot at keeping the House.
So I had faith that as long as we kept making the case to Senators and to the American people, and raised the urgency of the issue in the media – and as long as we kept up the drumbeat – we would prevail.
We all know how the story turned out. We did all those things, but Anthony was right and I was wrong. Senator Schumer opened debate on the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act on January 18, the day after MLK Day, when activists across the country once again pointed to the clear, simple, moral choice that each Senator would make: did they want people to have the freedom to vote, or not? And after many hours of debate, Republicans filibustered the bill on January 19, and Senators Manchin and Sinema voted with all 50 Republicans against changing the filibuster. Due, apparently, to a toxic brew of venal self-interest, pathological obstinance, ugly ambition, lack of empathy, and – yes – a preference for the status quo, Manchin and Sinema could not rise to the occasion. The bill died before advancing to an up-or-down vote.
I had talked to so many nay-sayers all year, and I found their dismissiveness of my hope infuriating. Many of them seemed to think their pessimism made them clever, and almost none of them had set foot in the arena, despite what was at stake. I had daydreamed of coming back to them after the bill passed and saying, “See? We did it!”
No such sweet moment came. Instead a moment came when I wondered whether I should regret my faith that we would win. Would skepticism have softened the blow? Tuning in online to watch the Senate proceedings unfold, I braced myself for the enormity of the loss. Yes, the gut-punch took my breath away. Yes, I cried furious tears. But do I regret my hope? Not a chance. In fact, having such hope was the only way I could have fought so hard. It was the only way I could have asked the Fight Back Friday crew to come out week after week, to chant, sing, wave signs, and be in community. And I am so proud of us: of everyone who fought tooth and nail for an authentic, inclusive, multiracial democracy. We got far despite steep odds. The days of the Jim Crow filibuster are numbered. And we built so much power along the way.
The hope and pride don’t come from inside me though, they come from people power: the vast family of freedom fighters who have locked arms (whether in person or on zoom) over the past year. Organizations collaborated in new configurations, new people joined in, and new relationships formed. Our numbers and resolve have grown.
Cliff Albright, the Co-Director of Black Voters Matter (and someone who put the wind in the sails of the Fight Back Friday crew whenever he cheered us on), quoted this line from scripture on movement calls, at rallies, and on social media:
“And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.”
I have thought about that line every day since I first heard it. Fighting for a country where every last one of us has a voice and can thrive – that struggle is righteous. The road is longer than we want it to be, but it’s the road we need to be walking. No one said a world-historical struggle would come without painful setbacks. We’re tenacious and fierce, and we know what to do: keep our eyes on the prize, and hold on.
Nancy Latham is on IEB’s Governance Committee. After having spent four long years resisting the t**** agenda, she is thrilled to be part of the movement to build an inclusive democracy. In her day job, she works with non-profits, foundations, and government agencies that support greater equity and justice through initiatives in youth development, education, housing, and community development.