Exclusive: Joe Madison Speaks About His Hunger Strike, Voting Rights, and Why We Need To Keep Fighting

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·11 min read
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Photo:  Courtesy of Joe Madison
Photo: Courtesy of Joe Madison

Long-time civil rights activist and radio show host Joe Madison is no stranger to America’s continued fight for equal rights. At age 24, he became the youngest executive director of the NAACP’s Detroit branch and the NAACP national political director in 1978. Madison began his radio career in 1980 at Detroit’s WXYZ-AM and on Sirius XM, he continues his storied career talking about racial issues and civil rights to a devoted audience.

On November 8th, Madison announced he was going on a hunger strike “in solidarity with all those who are calling on Congress and the President to protect our voting rights.” His protest went on for a remarkable 74 days until Madison decided to end it as another attempt to pass the Freedom To Vote: John R. Lewis Act failed to pass the Senate.

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On the same day, Madison released a powerful statement reiterating the need to inspire by these demonstrations. Just because a measure fell doesn’t mean we can’t continue to push for better. Our discussion with Madison speaks about his hunger strike, Republican obstructionism, and what young activists and advocates need to focus on with the upcoming elections.

The Joe Madison Show is every weekday from 6-10 AM EST on @SIRIUSXM. Follow him on Twitter at @MadisonSiriusXM.


The Root: We wish we were talking with better news, but the combination of the Freedom To Vote: John R. Lewis acted failed in the Senate. I wasn’t surprised because I knew what we were up against. Still, I was hoping Sens. Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema would do the right thing. How did you feel when you first heard that news?

Joe: I was hoping and honestly praying that Sens. Manchin and Sinema would put voting rights ahead of Senate procedural rules. I tried to keep that hope alive when it didn’t happen. I was initially disappointed, but just for a moment. Then I had to make two decisions; one was about my hunger strike and the second one was where do we go from here?

The first decision, I decided immediately to end the hunger strike because I knew the bill would not come up again. So, there was no need to continue the hunger strike. Then I sat down the following day and put together my statement. I’ve extended that discussion now to my audience and have asked them to talk about what’s next. What should we be doing? The response has been overwhelmingly positive, even on social media, which can be tricky. I’m not one that interacts a lot on social media. My staff does. But the vast majority of the responses have been,” I’m glad you’re no longer on your hunger strike out of concern. but let’s keep the fight going.”

TR: Sen. Sinema had that speech where she said she’s for the voting rights bill, but also for holding the filibuster. Sen. Manchin has echoed the same sentiments. The filibuster is the single thing stopping voting rights protections for Black people. I wanted your thoughts on this dichotomy of being for these protections and simultaneously upholding this outdated institutional procedure.

Joe: The hypocrisy of their position you just described is you have Republican senators saying African American voters, in particular, had record turnout, so the combined bill isn’t necessary. Then why are Republican state legislators introducing bills in 49 states to undo what worked? It’s absurd. Why would you introduce laws that would roll back the changes you said help increase voter turnout? That’s the absurdity and hypocrisy of their discussion.

An example is Lincoln County, Georgia, where the population is one-third African American. They have eliminated six of seven presidents - the only one they kept open was in the predominantly white community in a county where there’s no public transportation. In Iowa, they reduced the number of early voting days. Iowa. In Texas, they’ve removed drop boxes. There’s also dark money they don’t want to get rid of.

Let’s fast forward to where the executive committee investigating Jan. 6th found out that an executive order had been drafted to confiscate voting machines. The voting rights bills would have prevented that. So, there is tremendous hypocrisy. I wanted to do my hunger strike in solidarity with other activists and actions because I just felt that I needed to do something that drew more attention to this issue – particularly to those in power, President Biden, Vice President Harris, and the Senate.

TR: Let’s talk about President Biden for a second. His speech in Georgia explicitly called for a carve-out to the filibuster for voting rights. It took him a while to get there. Then, in his first speech of 2022, the President expressed he didn’t expect so much pushback from the Republican Party. It’s the same party containing members saying he didn’t win the 2020 election. Was the President too trusting when it came to bipartisanship?

Joe: First, I believe he was stuck in a time warp. It’s not even the same Republican Party. I outlined four points in my statement; Sen. Manchin cannot be trusted, Sen. Sinema would not get re-elected, the Republican Party is the official party of voter suppression, and Sen. Tim Scott is a traitor to his race.

He should be ashamed of himself, given the history of South Carolina. This is mainly related to what happened in the first reconstruction and former senators’ filibustering civil and voting rights in his current offices.

Also, the state legislators in Columbia are trying to roll back laws that he now says made it easy for people to vote - particularly African Americans. So, Tim Scott has sold out.

TR: Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was recently in the news where he distinguished African American voters as separate from everyone else. This may have been a Freudian slip, but many people don’t think so.

Joe: Maybe, but I think it says more about where his head and heart are. All he had to say was that it was a mistake or that he misspoke. But he goes into this long defense of his civil rights record. Well, if he has such an impressive record on civil rights, then why won’t he allow the Emmett Till anti-lynching bill to pass? Sen. Corey Booker has stated it the bill would pass if it were put up for a vote. His junior Senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul, is holding up the act.

TR: To go off what you said, that’s the frustration with these integral pieces of legislation. There are one or two senators that are always in the way. Much of the framing falls to the Democratic Party, but the Republican Party is not for anything. They are just stonewalling for the midterms to run on the premise that Democrats have done nothing. There has to be a way to shine a light showing their obstructionism is the real problem.

Joe: One of the things that I noted in my comments is that we have to simplify our message and be prepared to do what you just said. I agree with Rep. Jim Clyburn that we play too much defense. We allow the Republicans to tell the public what we’re not doing when it’s what they’re not doing. We fail to address who the real obstructionists are. It’s called transference. I will call you a racist when I’m the one practicing racism. You’re the obstructionist when I’m the one that votes “no.”

We have short memories. Sen. McConnell has done it twice. Once when he was Senate majority leader and now as the minority leader. He stated he would not help former President Obama win a second term, even if it hurts his constituents. McConnell turns around eight years later and repeats the same statement with President Biden. He’s keeping his word.

When people ask, “was the hunger strike worth it?” the answer is yes, because now this new generation of activists and advocates realize there is a difference between the two parties. They know the importance of the vote and being civically engaged. I quoted Japanese Admiral Yamamoto. “I feel all we’ve done is awakened a sleeping giant.” You’re going to be sorry that you woke them up. That’s why the hunger strike was not only a non-violent protest that was both political and moral, but it also highlighted the importance of sacrifice.

I also quoted the late professor Ronald Walters from Howard. I will never forget him saying that “there’s a difference between a moment and a movement.” A student asked him, “well, what’s the difference?” he replied, “all movements require sacrifice.”

People saw me, others, and that we were willing to sacrifice our health and lives for voting rights. People can pay attention and ask themselves, “what am I willing to sacrifice?”

TR: And I feel that we need to start looking forward to the 2022 and 2024 elections now before it’s too late.

Lord, please, Democrats, progressives, the DNC, and Black folk, don’t wait until August or October. Start now. Start right now. I think Press Secretary Jen Ptaski made a good point.

Go ahead and lick your wounds over the weekend. But come Monday morning, we got to get to work. We got to get ready, regroup, and reorganize–that’s my message. Another thing pointed out was that The White House has to do outreach. It’s one of the things former President Obama did. As an example was, he called a group of us together; black talk show personalities and journalists like you at The Root and said, “okay, what am I not doing that I need to do?”

That’s what I mean by outreach. Then you have to train a new generation of activists. We should focus on local and state elections - not just national elections. Lastly, lawyers should get together and continue to sue the states over voting restrictions and gerrymandering. Everybody should be on board - The divine nine, the religious denomination. You name it—even Jack and jill.

TR: A lot of what we are fighting against feels like a reoccurring theme in history. For example, there was the Civil Rights Act of 1965, which held vital voting protections. Then, unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s ruling essentially ended them useless. It is why you have so many laws at the state level. So, much of this seems as though you have to look to the past lessons to conquer the present.

Joe: Well, let me go further back. This is before us deciding to do protests and a hunger strike. I’m a history buff. I re-read professor Henry Louis Gates Jr, Stony: The Road, where he talks about the reconstruction era and how short-lived it was.

Rutherford B. Hayes struck a compromise with the southern members of Congress to remove the federal troops from the south that were protecting African-Americans who were holding office and registering to vote. They withdrew the federal troops from those former Confederate states almost instantly. The first thing they went after was the right to vote. The Klan in South Carolina formed gun clubs.

As you pointed out, before 1965, all hell broke—Plessy versus Ferguson in Louisiana. Let me give you an example. Once the first reconstruction period ended in Louisiana, professor Gates reminded me over 130,000 Black Americans voted. Within four years, in 1898, the number was of registered black voters went from 130,000 to 1,342. That was repeated in most Southern states because they had codified anti-voting laws on the state level.

So, what I saw happening was the end of what I call the second reconstruction. I said at the time on my show that I’ll be damned if I’m going to have my children and grandchildren ask, “what did I do? What did he do to keep this from happening?”

I wanted to make sure the powers understood that I was adamant that what happened during the end of the first reconstruction would not occur without protests. And at the end of what I see as the second reconstruction.

I took the position that we have to get these senators and people in power to understand, but justice food is essential in maintaining life. The vote is necessary to maintain democracy, and that’s when I decided I was going to use the hunger strike as a form of protest, both politically and morally.