More than 60 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined his father as co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in November of 1959.
In his first sermon as co-pastor of Ebenezer, “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” Dr. King talked about “what God needs today.”
“Men and women who will ask, "What will happen to humanity if I don’t help?” Dr. King preached. "What will happen to the civil rights movement if I don’t participate? What will happen to my city if I don’t vote? What will happen to the sick if I don’t visit them? This is how God judges people in the final analysis.”
On Monday, speaking from that same pulpit, the church’s current senior pastor, Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, delivered a powerful, impassioned speech in defense of voting rights at a service honoring Dr. King’s life and legacy.
Warnock invoked the memory of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched with Dr. King for voting rights in the Selma-to-Montgomery March and said that “Even without words, our march was worship — I felt my legs were praying.”
“We’ve got to pray with our lips, and we’ve got to pray with our legs,” Warnock said. “Our nation needs our prayers. We are at a critical moment.”
“I know that at this time of the year, everybody lines up to offer praise and memory of Martin Luther King Jr.,” he said. “Everybody loves Dr. King. They just don’t always love what he represents.”
“Everybody quotes Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend,” he continued, noting that most people will likely quote from his “I Have a Dream” speech, but encouraged people to read the 1957 “Give Us the Ballot” speech, the first time Dr. King spoke in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial.
“All types of conniving methods are still being used to prevent Negroes from becoming registered voters,” Dr. King said. “The denial of this sacred right is a tragic betrayal of the highest mandates of our democratic tradition. And so our most urgent request to the president of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote.”
“Give us the ballot, and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights,” Dr. King continued. "Give us the ballot, and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence. Give us the ballot and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens.”
“Was he talking about then?” Warnock asked. “Or was he talking about now?”
“I ask the question because I have been to this mountain at this moment, time and time again,” he continued, “And I know that politicians, especially, God bless their hearts, will want to be seen standing where Dr. King stood.”
“Let the word go forth: You cannot remember Dr. King and dismember his legacy at the same time,” Warnock said at the event. “If you would speak his name, you have to stand up for voting rights, you have to stand up on behalf of the poor and the oppressed and the disenfranchised.”
Warnock said that the arguments against voting rights legislation now sound like the arguments against civil rights legislation in the 1960s.
“We are somewhere between Jan. 5,” Warnock warned, referencing last year’s historic election which sent both him and fellow Georgia Democrat Sen. Jon Ossoff to the Senate, “and Jan. 6 violence and racism and bigotry and anti-Semitism. The question is which way will we go?”
Later in the service, Vice President Kamala Harris issued a similar warning: “Our freedom to vote is under assault.”
President Biden and Democratic leaders have worked tirelessly in recent weeks to advance voting rights legislation in the face of Republican obstruction and efforts at the state level, largely in GOP-led statehouses, to restrict access to the ballot box.
According to a tally from the Brennan Center for Justice, 19 states have passed 34 restrictive voting laws in the last year, the most since the group began tracking such legislation in 2011.
“In Georgia and across our nation laws are being passed that could make it more difficult for 55 million Americans to vote,” she continued, adding that the backers of those laws “are also working to interfere with our elections and to get the outcomes they want” and blasting the efforts as antithetical to democracy.
“We know that this assault on our freedom to vote will be felt by every American, in every community, in every political party,” she said. “We know that if we stand idly by, our entire nation will pay the price for generations to come.”
The House of Representatives last week voted to pass a bill that combines Democrats’ two major voting rights bills — the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act — and send them to the Senate, setting up a showdown in Congress over access to the ballot box.
The sweeping Freedom to Vote Act, which carries the crucial backing of moderate Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, would make Election Day a national holiday, create a national standard for voter identification, crack down on long voting lines at polling places, expand mail-in voting and mandate states offer a minimum number of days for early voting. It would also outlaw partisan gerrymandering of resdistricting maps, overhaul campaign finance reform and make it a federal crime to harass or threaten election officials.
The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would update and restore provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was gutted by the Supreme Court in separate decisions in 2013 and 2021.
The bill passed in a party line vote, without any Republican support. The bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where it needs 60 votes to pass thanks to the chamber’s legislative filibuster threshold for major legislation.
“It is time for the United States Senate to do its job,” Harris said. “The Senate must pass this bill now.
“Today we must not be complacent or complicit,” she concluded.We must not give up and we must not give in.”