Marchers Convene to Preserve Voting Rights Act
More than 10,000 marchers stormed Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and trekked through the historic Atlanta University Center chanting, singing and clapping July 6 in support of extending the 40-year-old Voting Rights Act.
Organizers hope the “Keep the Vote Alive” march will pressure Congress and President Bush to extend key provisions of the landmark law, which expires in 2007.
“Forty years later, we’re still marching for the right to vote,” said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who participated in the civil rights struggles that helped secure passage of the law in 1965. “Don’t give up, don’t give in. Keep the faith, keep your eyes on the prize.”
Activists from across the country — including Dick Gregory and Harry Belafonte — joined Lewis, NAACP President Bruce Gordon and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who heads the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, during the weekend demonstration.
“The most fundamental aspect of our democratic existence is at stake,” Belafonte said as the march got underway. “We are the keepers of the gates of democracy … We must stand vigilant, as there are those among us who would steal our liberty and steal our souls.”
Gregory added that “there is nothing more important in America than the right to register” to vote, even if that right is never exercised. He also noted that he was marching in much safer times than four decades ago, when he and other demonstrators faced violent police opposition in Selma, Ala.
“We were scared then, but there is no fear here today,” said Gregory.
Civil rights groups fear conservatives will try to modify two key provisions of the law. One requires nine states, mostly in the South, to get federal approval before changing voting rules. The other requires election officials to provide voting material in the native language of immigrant voters who don’t speak English.
Many supporters preached education and awareness.
“The right to vote is not in danger, but we must protect it against discrimination,” Jackson said at a rally at the end of the march.
Activists also used the rally to protest Georgia’s recently passed voter identification law, which critics call the most restrictive in the country. NAACP President Gordon called the law “the most outrageous, oppressive, discriminatory” law he’d ever seen.
If that bill is approved by the Department of Justice, Jackson warned, it could “spread like a virus” to other states. Rainbow/PUSH is among a list of objectors that have urged the Department of Justice not to approve the law.
The hour-long hike to Morris Brown College’s Herndon Stadium got off in fits and starts as the media clamored to photograph high-profile participants like Jackson, country singer Willie Nelson and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the former Southern Christian Leadership Conference president.
Jerky and disconnected at times, the crowd — which Atlanta Police estimate numbered between 10,000 and 15,000 marchers — was buoyed by marching bands and songs from the civil rights era.
Many of the organizers marched alongside their constituents, including Gordon, who was attending his first march after only a week as NAACP leader.
“People need to understand if this act is not reauthorized and improved, we will lose the progress of the last 40 years,” he said.
— Associated Press
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