RALEIGH — At the behest of the nations oldest civil rights organization, activists from seven Southeastern states gathered in downtown Raleigh Saturday and vowed to renew their efforts to combat the historic challenges people of color have faced when trying to vote in this country.
While speaking at a This Is My Vote rally, the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said the current challenges are not new.
Because we know our history, we know whats happening now, Barber said. We have that memory in our DNA.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People believes the current challenges include attempts to pass a law requiring voters to present identification at voting booths, barriers to prevent same-day voter registration and the banning of ex-felony offenders from casting ballots.
The NAACP members throughout the training period were also reminded of the racially charged shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager who was shot dead by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Fla.
The shooting of 17-year-old Martin, who was carrying a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea while walking through a gated community, has attracted nationwide attention and protests. The shooting prompted President Barack Obama to call for a thorough investigation and to declare that, If I had a son, hed look like Trayvon.
Zimmerman, 28, claimed self-defense in the shooting and has not been arrested. Florida law allows citizens with legally registered firearms to use deadly force if they think they are in imminent danger.
The NAACP leaders on Saturday said people of color need to deploy the power of the ballot to knock down laws that prevent Zimmerman from being charged.
Your vote can change economic policies, health, policies and education, Barber said. We can put people on juries who can deal with cases like Trayvon Martin.
For the more than 300 people gathered at the Raleigh Convention Center for the 59th-annual NAACP Southeast Region Civil Rights Advocacy Training Institute, Martins death was a poignant reminder of the role race continues to play in America. The shooting also added fuel to the fire over what NAACP leaders say is an attack on voting rights that aims to disenfranchise thousands of voters before the November elections.
Barber pointed out that the conference marked the 47th anniversary of civil rights activists march for voting rights from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery. Barber said extreme forces are waging a well-funded war to destroy the gains made by the civil rights movement.
They are trying to rebuild the walls of the Solid South, he said. But theres never a South so solid, so impenetrable that we cant break it up and tear it down. Black voters, white voters, Latino voters we declare here and now, Not on our watch.
Barber earlier this month sent a letter to the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners cautioning county governments not to try and enact local versions of a voter identification bill vetoed last year by Gov. Beverly Perdue.
So far, 16 states require a strict form of identification at polling places, with another 17 requiring residents to present some form of identification before they can cast their ballots.
Jordan Shaw, a spokesman for state House Speaker Thom Tillis, said Saturday that North Carolinas bill enjoyed pretty popular polling support. He also pointed out that people are typically asked for ID everywhere they go.
Voting is a sacred act and we want to make sure that it stays sacred, he said.
Shaw brushed aside suggestions that the measure would be used to suppress the votes of people of color, but instead would be used to ensure against voter fraud.
We think its worthwhile to try and protect the integrity of the voting process, he said.
Shaw noted there have not been widespread reports of voter fraud in North Carolina, but he said it would be easy in this state.
We are lucky that we havent had more reports of fraud, he said. We should try and make sure that it doesnt happen.
Benjamin Jealous, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP, said Saturday that he recently spoke about voter disenfranchisement to a human rights committee at the United Nations.
Jealous said the newly attempted voter restrictions are akin to the Jim Crow laws that mandated racial segregation and restricted civil rights for African-Americans in the late 1800s. The laws were repealed with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act that was signed into law by President Johnson less than five months after the Selma March on Aug. 6, 1965.
Voter ID is like Jim Crow, Jealous said. Ex-felon disenfranchisement laws are Jim Crow. Thats what we were talking about at the UN.
Derrick Johnson, state president of the Mississippi NAACP, said part of the motivation to suppress voting rights has to do with the demographic and cultural shifts the country is undergoing.
The fact is the country is becoming blacker and browner, Johnson said. We are fast becoming a different kind of nation. The white numbers are shrinking. The fact of America is those in power are interested in staying in power by whatever means.
Johnson also reminded the members that the NAACP is for all people of color and working class whites. He encouraged the members to join with the Latino communities in their struggle against unfair immigration laws.
The four-day training institutes theme was Standing For Freedom and Defending Democracy. It began on Thursday and will end today. Its members attended workshops that were conducted at the convention center and at the Martin Street Baptist Church. Training topics included childhood obesity, the role of the church in political and civic engagement, economic empowerment, youth leadership, hate crimes, health care in the current political climate and criminal justice.
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