As events honoring the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. kicked off across the country, descendants of the slain civil rights leader demanded politicians take up the push for federal voting rights reform.

In demonstrations Monday, members of the King family said there could be "no celebration without legislation." That means there can be no paying lip service to King and his legacy if there is no support for Democrats' voting reform bills, Martin Luther King III said.

"Today, remember the true nature of my father's work. He fought for easy access to the ballot box & civil rights protections. He isn't a figurehead to be used to uplift backward agendas. We won't celebrate until Congress does its job and legislates," King's eldest son said on Twitter.

The Freedom To Vote Act would set new minimum standards for early and mail-in voting, among other provisions. The John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act seeks to restore major elements of the landmark Voting Rights Act weakened by Supreme Court rulings.

President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats are trying to pass the Lewis Act this week. To do so, they are attempting to scrap the filibuster, a procedural rule that requires a 60-vote threshold to bring legislation up for debate. But they face serious opposition from members of their own party who don't want to see changes to the filibuster, as well as from Republicans.

Activists march in MLK's memory and for voting reform

On Monday morning in Washington, D.C., members of the King family led hundreds of demonstrators on a march across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. Despite the cold weather, masked marchers held up signs calling for voting reform, D.C. statehood and an end to the filibuster.

The group continued their two-mile Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Walk through the city, until reaching Union Station where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other lawmakers spoke during a press conference.

"Nearly 60 years ago at the March on Washington, Dr. King declared: 'Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy,''" Pelosi said in a statement. "Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children.' Let us heed those immortal words by strengthening our democracy and securing the blessings of liberty for every American."

A similar demonstration took place in Charleston, W. Va., when a group of protesters blocked traffic in the city in order to draw attention to the voting rights legislation.

About a dozen protestors were arrested after sitting in an intersection, according to local reports.

The group specifically called on West Virginia's Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who is stringently opposed to ending the filibuster, to vote on the Lewis Act and "fix the filibuster."

In Atlanta, other members of the King family gathered with local activists and politicians to honor King's memory at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the church where he once served as a pastor.

Bernice King, the CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, spoke of her father's legacy and non-violent methods during her speech.

"If ever there was a time that the world needs this love-centered way, now is the time," she said.

The broader message there remained the same: The way to honor King's memory is to pass the voting rights act.

"To truly honor the legacy of the man we celebrate today, we must continue to fight for the freedom to vote, for freedom for all," Vice President Kamala Harris said in a speech shared virtually.

Volunteers that participated in The King Center's MLK Day service project in Atlanta, despite wintry conditions, received a surprise from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex provided local Black-owned food trucks to feed the volunteers.

Jan. 15 marks what would have been the 93rd birthday of King Jr., who was just 39 when he was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tenn.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

300x250 Ad

300x250 Ad

Support quality journalism, like the story above, with your gift right now.