(RNS) — For Black church leaders and multiracial coalitions, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, less than 300 days from Election Day, has come to represent the unofficial start to voter mobilization efforts. Plans for what would have been King’s 95th birthday are focused on overcoming increased restrictions on voting in some states that may discourage voters — especially younger ones — from casting their ballots.
“We are deeply concerned that our democracy and the right to vote is threatened in ways that we never even imagined,” said the Rev. Barbara Williams-Skinner, coordinator of Faiths United to Save Democracy. “And at the same time, too many of our young people and also people who are disadvantaged are checking out of the system, do not feel like it is working for them.”
Her coalition, Williams-Skinner said, plans to expand its activities beyond the Black church leaders who have traditionally been involved in its efforts to include Jews and Muslims, Asian American Pacific Islanders, Latinos and others. A diverse set of advocates representing those groups are scheduled to speak at a virtual forum on Monday called “Why Vote?” that will feature a video message from NBA star Steph Curry.
“We’re starting early because we need to spend a lot more time educating people about how to vote, how to vote against the rising tide of misinformation and disinformation,” she said. “We need to make sure people understand what their rights are.”
Bishop William J. Barber II, who as president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of Poor People’s Campaign plans to make reducing poverty an election issue, will deliver an address on Sunday at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem in New York as he seeks to build on King’s work. The speech is the first of seven he will give in cities across the country in coming weeks.
“Today, poverty is the 4th leading cause of death in America,” Barber said in a statement announcing his plans. “It is a death sentence for Americans. It is a moral travesty and a detriment to the soul of our nation that poverty kills more people than homicide yet the powers that be don’t want to address it.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network will host a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast on Monday in Washington, where voting rights will be a topic of the day. His organization and the Conference of National Black Churches announced a joint “Get Out the Vote” campaign in December that will focus on issues of concern to African American voters, including affirmative action and health care access.
“We are not simply celebrating Dr. King’s legacy this year but coming together to publicly vow to protect it from those who wish to undo his work,” said Sharpton in a statement about his organization’s observance of the King holiday. “Right now, the Civil Rights Act he pushed President Johnson to pass in 1964 is under relentless attack, voting rights for Black Americans are being chipped away in dozens of states, and diversity in Corporate America is on the brink.”
The breakfast, said the Rev. W. Franklyn Richardson, a New York-area pastor who chairs both the NAN and CNBC’s boards, will kick off a joint campaign to connect with some 31,000 congregations affiliated with the Black church conference and the dozens of chapters of Sharpton’s network to train pastors to, in turn, educate congregants in the voting process.
“We plan to use every vehicle, every asset available to us to try to give attention to this election in November, and we’re starting early because we don’t believe we can do it in the last three months of the election season,” he said.
Richardson said using King Day to emphasize voting in the months ahead is appropriate because of the civil rights leader’s advocacy for voting rights.
“He used the process of political participation, driven by a clear mandate of social justice of the gospel to get our people to participate in elections,” he said. “I think Martin Luther King has set the paradigm for the church’s participation in this process. And we can’t go to sleep on it. We got to sound the alarm that our participation is vital.”