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Martin Luther King family urges U.S. Senate to pass voting rights legislation

Marking MLK Day, U.S. President Joe Biden said Monday that Americans must commit to the unfinished work of Martin Luther King Jr.'s work and protect "the sacred right to vote," while Vice-President Kamala Harris and the King family urged the U.S. Senate to pass a law to protect voters from racial discrimination.

Americans must commit to the unfinished work of Martin Luther King Jr., said U.S. President Joe Biden

Martin Luther King III, the eldest son of the late civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., his wife Arndrea Waters King and daughter Yolanda Renee King take part in a Peace Walk on the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge in Washington, D.C., during Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

Americans must commit to the unfinished work of Martin Luther King Jr., delivering jobs and justice and protecting "the sacred right to vote, a right from which all other rights flow," U.S. President Joe Biden said Monday.

In a video address to mark Martin Luther King Day, the president said today is a moment when a mirror is held up to the United States.

"It's time for every elected official in America to make it clear where they stand," Biden said. "It's time for every American to stand up. Speak out, be heard. Where do you stand?"

Major holiday events included marches in several cities and the annual Martin Luther King Jr. service at the slain civil rights leader's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Pews have been packed by politicians in past years, but given the pandemic, many offered pre-recorded speeches instead.

This holiday marks what would have been the 93rd birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who was just 39 when he was assassinated in 1968 while helping sanitation workers strike for better pay and workplace safety in Memphis, Tenn.

King family demands U.S. Senate pass voting rights legislation

King's eldest son criticized Biden and Congress as a whole on Monday for failing to pass voting rights legislation, even as 19 Republican-led states have made it harder to vote in response to former president Donald Trump's false claims about election-rigging.

Martin Luther King III speaks during a news conference in Washington on Monday King's eldest son criticized U.S. President Joe Biden and Congress as a whole for failing to pass voting rights legislation, even as 19 Republican-led states have made it harder to vote in response to former president Donald Trump's false claims about election-rigging. (Jose Luis Magana/The Associated Press)

"You were successful with infrastructure, which is a great thing — but we need you to use that same energy to ensure that all Americans have the same unencumbered right to vote," Martin Luther King III said.

King's family and their supporters marched in Washington on Monday, urging passage of a bill to protect voters from racial discrimination.

As part of the annual MLK Day D.C. Peace Walk, the King family and more than 100 national and local civil rights groups strode across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge into downtown Washington.

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Senate Republicans remain unified in opposition to the Democrats' voting bills. Biden described their stonewalling as part of "a true attack on our democracy, from the Jan. 6 insurrection to the onslaught of Republican anti-voting laws in a number of states."

"It's no longer just about who gets to vote. It's about who gets to count the vote. And whether your vote counts at all. It's about two insidious things: voter suppression and election subversion," Biden said.

In a separate speech live streamed to the late Rev. King's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Vice-President Kamala Harris also urged the Senate to act, warning that efforts to restrict voting in some U.S. states could make it more difficult for millions of Americans to vote.

"The Senate must pass this bill now," she said. "Today, we must not be complacent or complicit."

U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris delivers remarks virtually from Washington to the Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church for the Martin Luther King Jr. Beloved Community Commemorative Service on Monday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Republican Senator defends party

Sen. Tim Scott, of South Carolina, the Senate's only Black Republican, countered with a series of King Day-themed videos he said would emphasize positive developments on civil rights. Scott sidestepped criticism about his party's actions and accused Democrats of labelling Republican members as racists.

Meanwhile, Sen. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat now running for re-election as Georgia's first Black senator, said in his speech to the sparse crowd at Ebenezer that "everybody loves Dr. King, they just don't always love what he represents."

"Let the word go forth, you cannot remember Dr. King and dismember his legacy at the same time," Warnock said. "If you will speak his name, you have to stand up for voting rights, you have to stand up on behalf of the poor and the oppressed and the disenfranchised."

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. addresses crowds in 1963 during the March On Washington at the Lincoln Memorial, where he gave his famed 'I Have A Dream' speech. (Central Press/Getty Images)

King — who delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech while leading the 1963 March on Washington and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 — considered racial equality inseparable from alleviating poverty and stopping war. His insistence on non-violent protest continues to influence activists pushing for civil rights and social change.

The U.S. economy "has never worked fairly for Black Americans — or, really, for any American of colour," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a speech Monday, one of many by U.S. leaders acknowledging unmet needs for racial equality on MLK Day.

Yellen said the Biden administration has sought to ensure that no economic institution fails to work for people of colour, building equity into the American Rescue Plan and injecting $9 billion US into community and minority-run financial institutions poorly served by Wall Street.

With files from Reuters

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