Marchers Celebrate Voting Rights Act in Atlanta

By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 6, 2005; 1:51 PM

ATLANTA, Aug. 6 -- Thousands of marchers joined many of the icons of the American civil rights movement Saturday morning as they walked through the streets of Atlanta to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and to built support for extending protections from that bill.

"Keep Hope Alive, Extend the Voting Rights Act," chanted the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, one of the leaders of the march. He was joined by former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a close aide to slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and a large group of prominent African American church leaders from across the country.

The landmark law, which is set to expire next year, helped transform U.S. politics and led to rising numbers of minorities elected to govern. But some conservatives have suggested that parts of the law are no longer necessary, especially the section that requires nine states, mainly in the South, to seek federal approval of voting rules changes. That section also mandates that states draw minority-controlled congressional districts if black and Hispanic voters dominate certain residential areas.

Some conservatives have also signaled that they hope to change a provision in the bill that requires election officials to assist immigrant voters who don't speak English by providing them with voting material in their native language. The provision, however, is not widely challenged because it benefits Asian Americans, Latinos, Armenians and others on both sides of the political divide.

In addition, the marchers Saturday were protesting a new Georgia law that strictly limits which photo identification can be used by voters coming to the polls.

"Many people have died for us to have the right to vote. We can't lose that," said Carolyn Chester, 42, a medicine aide at an assisted living facility in Baltimore who came to Atlanta by bus with a group sponsored by the Service Employees International Union.

The commemoration of the act was attracting attention elsewhere Saturday also. Rep. Lewis, who was a key leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and participated in a 1965 protest in Selma, Ala., in which state troopers attacked marchers as they sought to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, gave the Saturday Democratic radio address on the topic.

"We were beaten, tear gassed, and trampled by horses on that bridge," Lewis said. "We paid a price, but that's what it took to bring voting rights for people of color in America. The events of 'Bloody Sunday,' as it came to be known, aroused the conscience of the nation" and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

He noted that currently there are 81 members of Congress of African American, Latino, Asian, and Native American descent, and thousands of minorities in elected offices around the country.

"Our democracy depends on protecting the right of every American citizen to vote in every election," Lewis said. "We must honor the legacy of all who died in the struggle for civil rights."

The marchers here Saturday left the federal Russell government building and moved down Martin Luther King Drive to the Morris Brown College campus, where they will have a rally and entertainment from singers Willie Nelson, Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder and Roberta Flack. March organizers said there were 10,000 to 15,000 people at the rally.

On the way, the marchers passed the massive Georgia Dome, where television evangelist Rev. T.D. Jakes was wrapping up the final day of his Mega Fest, a spiritual gathering of more than 100,000 people.

Jakes, who has no formal association with the march, met with Jackson and other ministers at a pre-march breakfast.

Jackson said march organizers were hoping that many of the people who came to the Mega Fest would join in the Voting Rights Act commemoration.

"We appreciate all of the support that we can get for the march," Jackson said. "We will have a big cross section from across the country."

"Voting Rights cuts to the core values of this nation," Jakes said in an interview Friday. "Not only is it important that African Americans have the right to vote but it is important that all Americans be concerned that our rights be protected."

Staff writer Darryl Fears contributed to this article.

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