Activists traveling through the South to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the historic “Freedom Riders” are urging President Joe Biden to do more to protect voting rights for Black Americans, as Democrats and Republicans battle over ballot access.
Dozens of civil rights campaigners, traveling on five customized buses, were greeted in Atlanta on Monday by hundreds of local activists and Georgia residents, a local band and performances of the “Electric Slide” line dance in front of Ebenezer Baptist Church. Slain civil rights champion Martin Luther King served as a pastor at that church in the 1960s.
“I am hoping that we will see the same kind of tenacity, commitment and passion around protecting the civil rights of Black voters as we’ve seen with other policies,” LaTosha Brown, co-founder of the group Black Voters Matter, which organized the tour, told Reuters on Monday.
Participants are trekking this week from Jackson, Mississippi to the U.S. capital to push for voting rights legislation six decades after activists called “Freedom Riders” protested against segregated bus terminals in the South.
Biden has named Kamala Harris, the first Black U.S. vice president, to lead an effort against a slew of Republican-backed voting restrictions passed at the state level including sweeping changes in election battleground states including Georgia. Democrats have said the Republican measures disproportionately affect Black voters.
The activists said appointing Harris is not enough.
“I think he (Biden) needs to look for the next John Lewis,” Shenita Binns, 42, a civil rights activist from Atlanta, told Reuters.
Lewis, who died last year at age 80, was a U.S. congressman who earlier was one of the original “Freedom Riders.” He also was instrumental in lobbying for passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that barred discriminatory voting laws adopted in many southern states to prevent Black people from casting ballots.
Biden “needs to look right here in Atlanta because we are the ones who have been on the ground fighting against voter suppression. … We are the ones who put Biden into office,” Binns added.
Biden won the 2020 election by prevailing in Georgia and a handful of other states had that backed former President Donald Trump four years earlier. His fellow Democrats control both chambers of Congress because the party won two Senate runoff elections in January in Georgia.
The Senate is due on Tuesday to consider a sweeping Democratic-backed voting rights bill that faces an uphill battle amid stiff Republican opposition. The White House on Monday pledged to pursue other initiatives to boost voting rights even if the legislation is passed.
The bus tour heads on Tuesday to South Carolina, then North Carolina, and will stop on Thursday in Charleston, West Virginia, home state of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, who opposes the legislation coming before the Senate on Tuesday but has offered a compromise proposal.
“There’s more that we think the White House could do, and that involves continuing to put pressure on folks like Manchin,” said Cliff Albright, executive director and co-founder of Black Voters Matter.
“When I say pressure, we don’t even care what it looks like,” Albright said. “It could be the carrot or it could be the stick, it doesn’t just have to be pressure. It could be, ‘Look what does it take for this to be done with,’ to be honest.”