"A republic," Ben Franklin famously said, "if you can keep it."
After more than 230 years, the great American experiment --- constitutional democracy --- has arrived at a moment of grave national peril, once again testing Franklin's warning. Like the Confederates who fired on Fort Sumter at the outset of a bloody Civil War, a major segment of our polity today is being led by racist and seditious reactionaries --- "domestic enemies" of the very Constitution they solemnly swore to uphold and defend.
This unscrupulous lot call themselves "Republicans". Yet, they have absolutely nothing in common with the Party once led by Abraham Lincoln, an intellectual giant, who extolled the need to see that "government of the People, by the People and for the People shall not perish..."
The right to vote is foundational to all other rights. By way of more than 253 restrictive bills, introduced in 43 States, these elected autocratic "American Fascists" seek to strip that foundational right from millions of their fellow Americans.
The For the People Act of 2021, recently passed by Democrats in the House as H.R.1, is a comprehensive election, campaign, ethics and voting rights reform measure that would, among other things, eliminate partisan gerrymandering of Congressional Districts, curb dark money campaign contributions, and preempt many state-based GOP voter suppression and intimidation laws, schemes and tactics. The Senate version of the bill, S1, is co-sponsored by 49 of the chamber's 50 Democrats.
If, at this critical moment, all 50 Senate Democrats do not agree to eliminate the filibuster, at least for Voting Rights-related legislation, in order to pass S1 before the end of the year, a clear path will have been paved for the GOP to retake majority control of both Houses of Congress in 2022 and recapture the Presidency in 2024 through a combination of extreme partisan gerrymandering and surgically precise voter suppression.
What better moment for Georgia's freshman Democratic Senator, Reverend Raphael Warnock, to call upon our better angels to save our democracy in a maiden address on the Senate floor (see video and link to transcript below) that amounted to what has been aptly described as a "Voting Rights Speech for the Ages"...
History will judge
In an email, before editing this item, The BRAD BLOG's proprietor Brad Friedman questioned whether it was an exaggeration for me --- and apparently MSNBC's Rachel Maddow --- to describe Warnock's remarks as a "Voting Rights Speech for the Ages".
It is my considered opinion that only history can answer that perfectly valid question. It is quite common that we humans, as we are living in history, do not immediately recognize that which is profound within a contemporary address.
Where many today would point to President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address as an oratorical masterpiece, in 1863 that two-minute speech was criticized both for its brevity and for its content. The Times of London went so far as to describe that historic speech as "ludicrous". The Chicago Times derided Honest Abe's lofty address as "political humbug". The pro-Lincoln Chicago Tribune chose to ignore our Civil War President's remarks, focusing instead on the 2-hour long and long-forgotten remarks offered at Gettysburg on that same November day by Edward Everett.
Had the South won the Civil War, there can be little doubt that Lincoln's egalitarian remarks would have been buried beneath a white supremacist, dehumanizing ideology that extolled, as a virtue, the enslavement of millions on the basis of nothing more than the color of their skin. A Confederate victory in 1865 would have ended "government of the People, by the People and for the People."
We venerate eloquence uttered in the midst of epic struggle when words move us in the direction of a more just and democratic society. Lincoln's Gettysburg remarks not only preceded the successful end of the Civil War, but also preceded passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment, which prohibits States from infringing on the right of every citizen to due process and equal protection under the law, and the 15th Amendment, which provides that the right to vote "shall not be denied or abridged...on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
The "I Have a Dream" speech was delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 --- historic eloquence in the midst of an epic civil rights struggle. The speech served as a cornerstone of an effort to secure the egalitarian promise of our nation's founding covenant, amidst the terror, savagery and oppression of the Jim Crow era.
"I Have a Dream" preceded passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As Warnock --- who serves as pastor of the same Baptist church in Georgia where King did --- observed in his maiden floor speech, "History vindicated the movement that brought us closer to our ideals; to lengthen and strengthen the cords of our democracy."
Of course, both Lincoln and MLK, Jr. were martyred by assassins bullets. But it shouldn't take the ultimate sacrifice before we recognize greatness. If Warnock's maiden Senate floor speech, which ended in a standing ovation from his fellow Senators, not only leads to the preservation of our constitutional democracy but also to taking a significant step towards securing a more perfect union via passage of the For The People Act, it is likely that writers, 50 years from now, will recognize its stature as a Voting Rights Speech for the Ages.
'The arc of change...bends towards freedom'
Warnock began his uplifting address by intermingling his personal history with the historic civil rights struggle of the mid-20th century. He expressed "reverence and gratitude for the faith and sacrifices of ancestors who've paved the way" for his "journey" from a young African-American who grew up in public housing, to become the first member of his family to attend college and eventually enter the "hallowed halls" of the Senate. It was a journey that allowed the same hands of his 82-year old mother, that picked other people's cotton in the 1950s, to cast votes for "her youngest son to [become] a United States Senator" on Nov. 3, 2020 and for the runoff on Jan. 5, 2021.
Ironically, Warnock noted, he now occupies the same Senate seat that, at the time of his birth, was occupied by the vile segregationist, Herman E. Talmadge. In response to the Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, outlawing school segregation, Talmadge proclaimed: "Blood will run in the streets of Atlanta."
Talmadge's father, the new Senator added, was former Georgia Governor, "Eugene Talmadge --- a segregationist who once declared: "The South loves the Negro, in his place. But his place is at the back door." When the former governor was "asked how he and his supporters might keep Black people away from the polls," Warnock noted, Eugene Talmadge "picked up a scrap of paper and wrote a single word on it: 'Pistols'!"
Warnock personalized the slights suffered at the hands of Jim Crow segregation. His father, a World War II veteran, was asked to give up his seat on a bus to a white teenager even while he wore the "uniform they said would make the world safe for democracy." Yet, the freshman Georgia Democrat explained, his father "was never bitter. By the time I came along, he had already seen the arc of change in our country."
It was a poignant observation that went to the very essence of the struggle between pro- and anti-democratic forces from the time of this nation's founding up to the present.
Warnock juxtaposed the evil threat to the "sacred and noble idea" of democracy --- "We're witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we have seen since the Jim Crow era" --- against the "Jeffersonian ideals that bend towards freedom". That Jeffersonian path forward was chosen by our nation's founders and embraced by civil rights leaders like MLK, Jr. and John Lewis.
As observed by Warnock:
Warnock's remarks were not limited to the impact of voter suppression. He also placed that impact within the context of the damage wrought by the infamous Citizens United decision...
Why defend democracy?
"Reinhold Niebuhr was right," Warnock argued. "Humanity's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but humanity's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."
As a Pastor, whose sermons are delivered at the same pulpit inside the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where the legendary MLK, Jr. once served, the Reverend Warnock's oration was imbued by his faith. He described "democracy" as "the political enactment of a spiritual idea: the sacred worth of all human beings; the notion that we all have within us the spark of the divine and the right to participate in the shaping of our destiny." He went on to describe the principle, "one man, one vote", as "sacred and noble."
At the core of democracy is the right to vote, which the GA Democrat described as "preservative of all other rights...the reason why any of us has the privilege of standing here in the first place. It is," Warnock eloquently added, "about the covenant we have with one another as an American People. E Pluribus Unum, out of many, one." In consonance with that covenant, it is "the job of each citizen to stand up for the voting rights of every other citizen."
An audience of one
Warnock accurately insisted that voting rights should not be a partisan issue...
The sad reality is that the appeal to defend democracy will fall upon the deaf ears of what, in a different era, would have been a receptive Republican audience.
As recently as 2006, while "George W. Bush was President," the United States Senate "reauthorized" the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), Warnock reminded his colleagues. "It passed this Chamber 98 - 0."
At that time, Section 5 of the VRA mandated that States and jurisdictions with a history of racially motivated voting rights discrimination, had to obtain "preclearance" --- approval from the U.S. Department of Justice or from a three judge panel at the D.C. District Court --- before any proposed changes to their election laws went into effect.
That preclearance process was gutted in 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court's right-wing majority, in Shelby County v. Holder, rejected the formula approved by Congress in 2006 for the list of jurisdictions covered by Section 5.
The one positive in that otherwise disastrous Supreme Court decision, Warnock observed, is that the Court "asked Congress to fix" the formula. "That was nearly eight years ago," he lamented, "and the American People are still waiting."
Given his own description of the GOP's "craven lust to retain power at all costs", betting on ten Senate Republicans to vote to pass the For the People Act could well be akin to betting that a high school football team will win the next Super Bowl --- a point that the Reverend appears to understand.
In stating that voting rights are "too important...to be held hostage to a Senate rule," he recognized that he need only persuade West Virginia's Joe Manchin --- the only Senate Democrat who did not co-sponsor S1.
Manchin previously signaled that he may be open to reforming the filibuster rule. The conservative West Virginia Democrat, who expressed concern about preserving minority rights in the Senate, said he'd be open to making the use of the filibuster "painful", perhaps by restoring the talking filibuster
Warnock acknowledged Manchin's Senate minority rights concern, but noted that it is "a contradiction to say we must protect minority rights in the Senate while refusing to protect minority rights in the society. No Senate rule," he inveighed, "should overrule the integrity of our democracy."
Passage of the For the People Act and, with it, the survival of our constitutional democracy, may come down to whether Machin would be willing to add Voting Rights Legislation to the list of essential matters (like budget reconciliation, along with judicial and cabinet appointments) that should be exempted from the Senate filibuster altogether, as suggested by Stacey Abrams.
Warnock, who included a litany of civil rights heroes who were beaten, gassed and murdered while striving to secure the blessings of democratic liberties, closed by imploring his colleagues to pass legislation that will "strengthen and lengthen support of our democracy, secure our credibility as the premier voice of freedom loving people and democratic movements all over the world, and win the future for our children."
Full video of Warnock's maiden Senate address on March 17, 2021, follows. A text transcript is posted here.