Few United States Senators have ever, or perhaps will ever, operate from a position of privilege quite like Bobby Kennedy had when he was elected to represent the state of New York in 1964.
The son of one of the wealthiest families in American history, the youngest attorney general our nation has ever had, kid brother to the youngest American president ever elected.
This was not a man you would expect to become a champion of the poor, the downtrodden, the Americans who always seem to find themselves forgotten about in our politics and in our country.
Somehow, Bobby Kennedy had the sense to know that there were things happening in our country that he couldn’t possibly fathom. So he set out to find them in places you would least expect to see a U.S. Senator in the late 60’s.
That’s how Bobby found himself standing outside a shack in the Mississippi Delta, wiping tears away from his eyes after visiting with a family whose child had a badly distended stomach and who was unimaginably weak from malnourishment.
It took him deep into the Appalachian Mountains, where for decades coal miners and laborers have been forced to risk their lives for pennies on the dollar, to make due baking their own bread because they can’t possibly afford to buy a loaf from the grocery store, where the sound of a siren echoing through your town in the middle of the day can only mean that someone isn’t coming home from the mine that night.
These are places most politicians will never know, but Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia has come to know well. Quite possibly the last Democrat that can win a statewide election in the Mountain State, Manchin has found himself in the enviable position of being one of the most influential members of the U.S. Senate and the unenviable position of being the object of derision among his party’s most progressive base.
With one of President Joe Biden’s biggest priorities, a bipartisan infrastructure bill, seemingly days away from becoming a reality, pressure is renewed for the president and Senate to take meaningful action on passing the For the People Act and protecting voting rights for a new generation of Americans.
Thus far, Manchin has been hesitant on one of the biggest sticking points facing the legislation: he isn’t willing to do away with the legislative filibuster to allow Democrats to pass the bill on a party-line vote, and efforts from everyone including members of his own Senate caucus to the Texas Democrats who broke quorum to stop Republicans from passing a radical anti-voting bill have so far failed to change his mind.
That’s why I’d like to propose that President Biden and Senator Manchin take a page from RFK’s book and come on down south for an extended tour of states that all share a rich and shameful history of voter suppression, and to hear from the American people that desperately need that to change.
Consider for a moment, Mr. President and Senator, that the national effort to disenfranchise voters is largely based on restricting the ability of Black and Brown Americans to vote, and that more than 50 percent of Black Americans live here in the south.
Take, for example, Mississippi. No state has a higher percentage of Black residents than Mississippi, with Black Americans accounting for almost 40 percent of the state’s population. Unlike many states throughout the south, including Texas and the Carolinas, Mississippi does not offer early voting. The state has a restrictive voter ID law, much like Texas, and they make it as hard as possible to cast an absentee ballot.
They also make it as hard as possible to register to vote, something we Texans know a thing or two about. If you were wondering why that could possibly be, Senator Manchin, it’s probably because if every eligible Black voter in Mississippi registered to vote tomorrow, statistically speaking, Mississippi would immediately become a swing state.
Do you know who would hate that? The Republicans who have enjoyed unchecked control of state government for decades.
And please be sure, Senator, to make the trip to Selma while you’re down here. I would love to stand with you as you cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, if for no other reason than so I could stop you when you reached the top and looked down to the east side of the bridge.
For those that don’t know the history, when John Lewis and the brave men and women who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge to protest voter suppression and police violence, including the murder of an unarmed civil rights activist, they had no idea that the police were waiting for them on the other side until they reached the top of the bridge and could see the armed and angry men waiting for them on the other side.
Those protestors had a choice: refuse to be intimidated and continue forward in their fight for what was right, facing certain bodily harm and possibly death if they did so. Or they could give up. They could turn and go home. They could let hate win that day.
What they were willing to do that day, Senator Manchin, was quite remarkable. They didn’t give way to fear and hate.
They crossed the damn bridge. And to this day we’re forced to remember what Bloody Sunday was and why it happened.
You need to see that bridge, Senator. And you do, too, Mr. President, though I know you’ve been there before.
You need to see the faces of women and men old enough to remember how it felt to be afraid that their father was sending himself to die because he wanted to vote for President.
You need to hear the voices of the working men and women being forced to wait in lines so long they’ll miss an entire shift to exercise their God-given right to vote.
And you need to come down to Texas, not for a fundraiser, but to sit and listen to the folks our corrupt and indicted Attorney General wants to send to prison for years for the high crime of voting when they didn’t know they weren’t eligible to do so.
Just because the people working to suppress votes today have gotten more sophisticated and they aren’t (yet) lining the street with clubs to keep us from voting, doesn’t mean this isn’t the most important moment of your career in the United States Senate.
We can not be afraid to take bold action on voting rights right now. All that’s on the line for the country you love, President Biden and Senator Manchin, is everything we believe in. Please, come on down south so we can show you what we’re talking about.