American democracy is in crisis as Republican supporters of Trump and the January 6, 2021 insurrection on the US Capitol try to restrict or even eliminate the democratic system’s basic principle of “one person, one vote”. Former President Donald Trump is driving the decline of democracy by spreading the “Big Lie” that Joe Biden fraudulently won him the 2020 presidential election. Countless audits, more than 60 court filings, and both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state confirmed that President Biden defeated Trump by more than seven million votes.

However, members in various positions of power within the Republican Party structure – from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to political operatives at the state and local level – have also joined Trump’s unfounded accusations. Complicit in his Big Lie, these Republicans are limiting voter turnout; promoting partisan gerrymandering in redistricting; and using money of dubious origin to ensure they gain power and keep it indefinitely, even as the GOP electorate has shrunk.

There are currently two bills in the US Senate that aim to stop this path to authoritarianism: the Voting Freedom Act and the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act. The US House of Representatives has already passed these voting rights legislations. For passage in the Senate, Senate Democrats will first have to overcome the Republican filibuster. The legislative filibuster rule has long been used to block civil rights-related legislation in the Senate and now is no different.

Under parliamentary rules, a majority of 60 votes out of 100 in the Senate is needed to defeat a filibuster, a barrier currently insurmountable due to the number of senators in the Republican bloc. Democrats could resort to a partial override or special “exemption” from the filibuster rule, which would allow Democrats to pass such ballot legislation with a simple majority. However, both Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – both members of the Democratic Party’s talking sector – have anticipated that they will oppose such a parliamentary manoeuvre to circumvent the filibuster.

In a major speech in Atlanta on Wednesday, President Biden argued for a temporary repeal of the filibuster to promote these voting rights bills: “Do you want to be on the side of Dr. [Martin Luther] King or George Wallace? Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?

Bull Connor was a vicious white supremacist who served as public safety commissioner for the city of Birmingham, Alabama, during most of the civil rights era. Biden’s reference to Bull Connor evokes an article Martin Luther King wrote in The Nation magazine in March 1964, when activists were pushing for passage of the Civil Rights Act. In the article, Luther King wrote:

“As predicted, the bill survived intact in the House of Representatives. It has now passed the Senate, where a legislative showdown reminiscent of the struggle in Birmingham looms. Bull Connor became too heavy a burden on Birmingham’s conscience. There are men in the Senate who plan to perpetuate the injustices that Bull Connor so vilely defended. Connor’s] weapons were the high-pressure hose, the billy club and the mad dogs; [the Senators’] weapon is obstructionism. If America is as fed up with them as it was with Bull Connor, we will be victorious.

Martin Luther King’s essay came out four months after President Kennedy’s assassination and nine months before King received the Nobel Peace Prize.

“On the 101st anniversary of the [Emancipation Proclamation], we do but ask Senators to meet the challenge of obstructionism in memory of the heroes of Birmingham,” King continued in that article, invoking the powerful memory of the four African-American girls who died in the racist bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, as well as the memory of two more young men who were killed during the protests and riots that immediately followed. King continued: “The most fitting tribute to the girls of Birmingham would be for the Senate, for the first time in history, to defeat obstructionism and vote in defence of civil rights. The dead girls will not be resurrected, but the children of today can have a future. The murderers who still walk the streets will go unpunished, but at least they will be defeated.

On that occasion, the obstructionist strategy finally failed and the Civil Rights Act became law, followed by the formidable Voting Rights Act of 1965, or VRA. The Voting Rights Act revolutionised the political participation of African Americans in the United States, especially in the South, and the right wing never stopped attacking it. Two recent US Supreme Court rulings – ‘Shelby County v. Holder’ in 2013 and ‘Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee’ in 2021 – undermined key pieces of the Voting Rights Act and unleashed an avalanche of gerrymandering and laws designed to reduce voter turnout. This resulted in millions of voters in majority Democratic inner cities and communities of colour being disenfranchised.

Cliff Albright, a Georgia activist and co-founder of Black Voters Matter, an organisation that advocates for the voting rights of the African-American community, told Democracy Now! from Atlanta on Friday: “Frederick Douglass told us a long time ago, ‘Power concedes nothing unless it is demanded. On what would be Martin Luther King’s 93rd birthday, it is time to demand that the US Senate overturn the racist rule of obstructionism and pass meaningful legislation that protects Americans’ voting rights.