In this Jan 10, 2018 file photo, Bernice King poses for a photograph at the King Center, in Atlanta. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter used an address Monday, Jan. 10, 2022 to push for federal voting rights legislation and slam “false narratives under the banner of critical race theory.” Credit: Robert Ray / AP

ATLANTA — When President Joe Biden arrived in Atlanta last Tuesday for a major address on voting rights, his first stop was Auburn Avenue, where he met with the family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

For about an hour in the King Center, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris sat across from Bernice King, Martin Luther King III and his wife, Arndrea Waters King. He reminded them of the importance and urgency of getting stalled voting rights legislation passed by Congress.

Then, they went outside and placed a wreath on the crypt of King and his wife, Coretta.

It was a symbolic start of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemorations, but it comes at a time when the family says attacks on voting rights leave them conflicted about how to mark the birthday of their father. Many states passed laws after the 2020 election that constrict voting procedures. The proposed federal laws would restore protections.

King III and Arndrea Waters King are heading up efforts to get people to use the day to pressure Biden and lawmakers to act on the federal voting rights bills.

“We want them to deliver on voting rights,” Andrea Waters King said. “Martin’s mother, when she was lobbying for the holiday, always envisioned it as a day of activism.”

Bernice King, the CEO of the King Center, is hosting a series of virtual events for its annual King Week. But she agrees with her brother in “calling our nation’s attention to securing and protecting the most sacred right of our democracy, which is the right to vote.”

She said that if a congressional vote on voting rights was not delivered by the holiday, “we, all of us, must collectively use our platforms on that particular day to do what Dr. King would do.”

“My father would speak and act in a way to make sure that this nation lives up to its promise of democracy by putting pressure on our United States Senate to bypass the filibuster, and instead of taking the King Holiday off, they should make it a day ‘on’ to pass the Voting Rights Act,” she said.

Arndrea Waters King said more than 150 national organizations, including five labor unions, have joined them. More than 1,000 signatures from faith leaders have also been delivered to the White House.

On Monday, the Kings are scheduled to be in Washington, D.C., where they plan to march across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. Their crossing harks back to the civil rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Bloody Sunday in 1965, while highlighting strong efforts by Biden to pass the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

“President Biden and Congress used their political muscle to deliver a vital infrastructure deal, and now we are calling on them to do the same to restore the very voting rights protections my father and countless other civil rights leaders bled to secure,” King III said. “You delivered for bridges, now deliver for voting rights.”

In 2013, in a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court effectively struck down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, allowing nine states, mostly in the South, to change their election laws without advance federal approval.

In 2021, Georgia, led by a Republican legislature and governor, passed laws in the wake of narrow losses to Democrats that restricted voting processes. The changes limit the number, location and days of use of vote drop boxes, cut the window of time to request an absentee ballot, outlaw the mass mailing of absentee ballot applications to voters, and require new levels of proof of identity that will disproportionately affect Black voters because they are more likely than white voters to lack driver’s licenses or state ID cards.

“So today, my daughter is standing with fewer voting rights than the moment she was born,” Arndrea Waters King said of 13-year-old Yolanda Renee King. “Our very democracy is at stake.”

Biden left the King Center for the Atlanta University Center, where he delivered a blistering speech on voting rights and called for changes in the U.S. Senate rules to pass voting rights and election legislation.

One proposal would create national standards for election management, redistricting and campaign finance, including making election day a holiday. The second, which is named for Georgia’s late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, would reinstate federal review of changes to state and local election laws and to restore enforcement provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act

Senate Republicans have blocked both of the Democratic-sponsored bills in the nearly evenly divided chamber, leading activists and progressive Democrats to call for the elimination of the Senate filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes to advance most legislation.

Ernie Suggs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution