The Congressional Gold Medal will be awarded posthumously Tuesday to Coretta and Martin Luther King Jr., but President Obama won’t be in attendance—and civil rights and voting rights activists are miffed. The ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of President Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act, which led a year later to the landmark Voting Rights Act. Now those hard-won gains at the ballot box are under assault, the result of a Supreme Court ruling last year that left the VRA toothless and opened the door to new voting rights restrictions in states across the country.
“There’s an avalanche,” says William Wachtel, a lawyer and co-founder of Why Tuesday, a group that seeks to expand voting beyond the traditional Tuesday. Instead of fighting about these restrictive laws, he says states should honor the intent of the Voting Rights Act and give people more opportunity to vote. Wachtel recalls Lyndon Johnson saying, “There goes the South for a generation” when he signed the VRA. “He put citizenship ahead of partisanship, that’s how it should be.”
Wachtel and other activists would like a more visible show of commitment to the VRA from the president. And while it would be nice for Obama to share a historical moment with the King family, grousing about his failure to attend the ceremony is misplaced, says a House Democratic leadership aide: “Not fixing the Voting Rights Act is the thing to be upset about, not whether the president shows up.”
In the House, Republican James Sensenbrenner and Democrat John Conyers have sponsored a bipartisan bill designed to plug the holes blown into the VRA by the court ruling. The measure is supported by an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, enough to ensure passage. “We have not been able to get floor time,” says the Democratic aide, blaming Republicans for standing in the way. On the Senate side, Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy is sponsoring companion legislation.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, voters in 22 states will face new restrictions that range from photo ID requirements to cutbacks in early voting and stricter rules for voter registration. Minority voting rights are the most challenged, with seven of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout imposing new restrictions and nine of the dozen states with the largest growth in Hispanic population over the last decade passing laws that will make it harder to vote, according to the Brennan Center.
Congress created an Election Assistance Commission in 2002 to avoid another voting fiasco like the one we saw in 2000, when questionable ballots in Florida with hanging chads left the results of the presidential election in limbo for 36 days. The EAC has a website and an office address but apparently little else, says Wachtel. None of its four commissioners are in place. Two Democratic nominees have been waiting for confirmation since 2010 and 2011. Republicans haven’t nominated anyone, and a quorum of three is needed to issue even advisory opinions. “You have crime prevention but you can’t get the sheriff appointed,” says Wachtel.
Republicans blocking things is a given on Capitol Hill, and Democratic activists appear more exercised about the lapses on their side of the aisle. It’s become part of the narrative that Obama, because he came of age after the civil rights movement, is tone deaf to the importance of that era, even as race continues to be a part of the American dialogue and as president he walks a tightrope between the races. As one activist put it, Obama is “too white for black people and too black for white people.”
A White House official told The Daily Beast that the president’s inability to attend the ceremony because of a scheduling conflict was communicated directly to the King family as well as to Congress and that the family understands. Obama has participated in other events honoring the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
It is also not unusual for a president to skip a Congressional Gold Medal ceremony. The speaker of the House arranges the date, and it’s not as if Speaker John Boehner coordinates with the White House to see what’s convenient for Obama. In addition, the ceremonies are getting pretty frequent. Israeli President Shimon Peres also will be recognized this week, and in July, Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.
The gold medal is the highest honor Congress bestows, and both houses must pass the authorizing legislation. The authorizing legislation for the King family was passed in 2004, with the ceremony a long time coming. When Nancy Pelosi was speaker, the gold medal was authorized for golfer Arnold Palmer and conferred by Boehner. The House recently passed for the second time authorization to honor golfer Jack Nicklaus; the Senate has yet to act. Legislation to award the medal to former British prime minister Tony Blair passed when Republicans loved him for supporting President Bush in Iraq, but Blair’s popularity shifted along with the war in Iraq, and he has not been awarded in a public ceremony.