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By Jan Wolfe and Nathan Layne

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Descendants of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and their supporters began marching on Washington on Monday to urge President Joe Biden’s Democrats to pass a bill protecting voting rights.

As part of the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day D.C. Peace Walk, the King family and more than 100 national and local civil rights groups planned to march across the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge into downtown Washington.

The march followed a disappointing week for Biden who went to the Capitol to urge U.S. Senate colleagues to change the chamber’s rules so they could overcome Republican opposition to the bill, only to be forcefully rejected by two conservative Democrats who hold effective veto power.

At a rally on Monday before the march, King’s son, Martin Luther King III, praised congressional Democrats for passing a sweeping infrastructure bill last year, but implored them to push through voting-rights legislation.

“You were successful with infrastructure, which was a great thing,” King said to a crowd of hundreds, “but we need you to use that same energy to ensure that all Americans have the unencumbered right to vote.”

The bill would expand access to mail-in voting, strengthen federal oversight of elections in states with a history of racial discrimination and tighten campaign finance rules. Democratic supporters say it is needed to counter a wave of new restrictions on voting passed in Republican-led states that election observers say would make it harder for minority and low-income voters to cast ballots.

New restrictions have emerged following former President Donald Trump’s false claims that his 2020 election defeat was the result of widespread fraud.

Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer has said the chamber would take up the bill on Tuesday, a delay from his earlier plan to hold a procedural vote on the bill by Monday, the federal holiday honoring King.

King III, his wife, Arndrea Waters King, and their daughter Yolanda Renee King, are leading the march.

Republicans, who hold half the 100 seats in the Senate, are united in opposition to the bill, which they contend is a partisan power grab. That leaves Biden and Schumer just one path to passing it: persuading conservative Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to agree to change the chamber’s “filibuster” rule that requires at least 60 senators to agree on most legislation.


Some civil rights groups in Georgia that helped propel Biden to presidential victory during the 2020 election boycotted his voting rights speech in Atlanta last week, saying they were disappointed by Biden’s lack of action.

“Black voters risked everything – including their own health at the height of the pandemic – to vote Biden and Senate Democrats into office,” wrote Cliff Albright and LaTosha Brown, co-founders of Black Voters Matter in a response to Biden’s speech.

“It’s time that officials in Washington treat us and our rights with the same level urgency.”

Should these groups lose enthusiasm for Democrats, it could increase their chances of losing their razor-thin majorities in at least one chamber of Congress in the Nov. 8, 2022, election.

Yolanda Townsend, who called herself a “senior” from the Washington, D.C., area, said at the rally with King III she found Biden’s Georgia speech timely and forceful.

“I wish it was drawn earlier, but I think a line in the sand has been drawn and you’re either with us or against us,” Townsend said.

King III told Reuters he believed history would judge Sinema and Manchin harshly. He said there was a clear need for action to protect voting rights due to the proliferation of laws to restrict ballot access in Republican-controlled states.

Kendra Cotton is the chief operating officer at the New Georgia Project, which has registered more than 250,000 new voters since 2014 and helped Democrats win two Senate seats in Georgia last year that gave them their current slim majority.

Without progress in Congress on voting rights, Cotton said she worried there would be little to show voters heading into the 2022 election.

(Reporting by Jan Wolfe in Washington and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Writing by James Oliphant; Editing by Scott Malone, Aurora Ellis and Howard Goller)