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Jackson's Political Drive Comes to Md.

Pr. George's Worshipers Urged to Push for Renewal of Voting Rights Act

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 14, 2005; Page A04

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson brought his campaign to renew the federal Voting Rights Act to a Prince George's County church yesterday with an appeal for help gathering a million signatures on a petition to President Bush.

Jackson told worshipers at Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington that he launched the effort because Bush told members of the Congressional Black Caucus last month that he didn't know the landmark measure, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, is up for renewal in 2007.

"We are fighting for democracy in Iraq that we don't have in this country," the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson told worshipers at Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington. (Hamil R. Harris -- The Washington Post)

"We are fighting for democracy in Iraq that we don't have in this country," Jackson told the congregation. African Americans will not lose the right to vote, he said, but certain key provisions will expire if not renewed by Congress.

In particular, Jackson pointed to a section of the law that requires the U.S. Justice Department to approve any changes a state makes in the voting process. Another provision spells out rules for federal observers during an election, a critical issue during the 2000 election and subsequent recount in Florida. The Voting Rights Act outlaws discriminatory practices, including literacy tests as a prerequisite to voting, that were prevalent in the South in the 1960s.

Some Republicans have said that Jackson and other black leaders are overreacting because African American voters face no loss of voting rights enshrined in the Constitution.

"It amazes me that in the year 2005 we are still discussing a piece of legislation that was passed in 1965," said Sophia Nelson, an African American GOP strategist and lawyer. "This is demagoguery, because if Jesse is serious about this issue as he should be, then he should be working with the House leadership . . . instead of making politics out of an issue that is very serious to the black community."

Jackson plans to lead a march in Atlanta on Aug. 6, the 40th anniversary of the legislation's passage. He said a coalition of civil rights, labor and elected officials will soon release a lobbying strategy for the bill's renewal.

"We the people are not going back no matter who is in the White House," Jackson boomed. "We have come too far by faith and by fighting."

Jackson's speech comes at a time when Bush and the GOP have tried to reach out to the African American church community. A bipartisan delegation, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) traveled to Selma, Ala., the previous Sunday for the 40th anniversary of a bloody protest march there.

After his sermon, Jackson staged a political altar call, asking anyone 18 years or older to fill out a voter registration form, part of another campaign to register 1 million new voters before the 2006 election.

Jackson's effort was welcomed by Ebenezer's pastor, the Rev. Grainger Browning Jr., who noted that in 2006, Maryland voters could well be considering an African American candidate to replace Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.), who announced last week that he will not seek reelection.

Several black candidates -- including Maryland U.S. Reps. Albert R. Wynn and Elijah E. Cummings and former congressman and NAACP chief Kweisi Mfume -- are considering seeking the Democratic nomination. Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele has been mentioned as a candidate for the GOP.

"This is a tremendous opportunity for us to mobilize larger-than-normal voter participation because this is an off-year election," Browning said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company