Keshia Thomas was sitting in the shade late Thursday afternoon as speakers took the stage at an hour-long voting rights rally between the N.C. Capitol and the state Legislative Building.
The human rights activist is on an 860-mile walk for justice and is one of five people who have made every step of a journey that started 35 days ago at a historic site in Selma, Ala.
With Washington, D.C., as their destination, the NAACP organized the Journey for Justice under the theme “Our Lives, Our Votes, Our Jobs, Our Schools Matter.”
Since Aug. 1, they have gotten up early each morning and walked between 20 and 25 miles per day with a long list of people and causes they are fighting for and honoring.
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In North Carolina, the rallying cry has been protecting and expanding voter rights and highlighting recent changes to state election laws that have been described by critics as some of “the most regressive in the country.”
Republican leaders and advocates say the changes were necessary to prevent voter fraud, though few cases have been prosecuted. Advocates say the new voter ID requirement and changes that prohibit voting out of an assigned precinct and casting a ballot the same day as registering to vote are precautions designed for clean elections.
Many of the changes are being challenged in the courts, and rulings from several judges are pending as the 2016 presidential election year nears.
Thomas, who lives in California, listened to the speakers at the Raleigh rally and recounted a story from almost 20 years ago when she protected a man believed to have been a Ku Klux Klan supporter from an angry mob of protesters at a Klan rally in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Thomas had gone to the rally to protest the Klan views and to stand up for human rights. But when people started using their placards to beat a man with an “SS tattoo” and a T-shirt depicting the Confederate flag who had sneaked into an area with the protesters, Thomas says she threw her body on the man to protect him and that her effort to stop further attack was captured in an iconic photograph by a student photographer.
“I’m about being kind to people,” Thomas said.
Whenever her feet tire on the march and she gets frustrated by injustices, she remembers her mission and soldiers on beside others who join legs of the journey by her side.
In Raleigh, about 70 people walked into the city with Thomas, including four others who have made the full journey. They include Cornell William Brooks, the head of the NAACP, and Middle Passage, a 68-year-old disabled veteran from Colorado.
They walked toward the stage, carrying a Torah. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism organized rabbis to join the journey.
They are pushing for the restoration of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated that section – which required North Carolina and other states with histories of discrimination to get preclearance from the federal government before making changes to voting laws.
The journey, which began in Alabama and crossed through Georgia and South Carolina, will take the marchers through states recently freed from that requirement.
Brooks, a fiery orator who received loud rounds of applause from the nearly 500 people gathered in downtown Raleigh, recounted the civil rights battles for voting rights nearly 50 years ago and the “blood-stained highways” and “sweat-soaked byways” that the modern movement crossed this past month.
On Sept. 15, the marchers plan to cross Arlington Memorial Bridge into the nation’s capital and then have a big rally on Sept. 16.