Thousands of marchers joined icons of the civil rights movement Saturday morning in the streets of Atlanta to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act and to build support for extending protections from that bill.
"Keep hope alive: Extend the Voting Rights Act," chanted Jesse L. Jackson, president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and a march leader. 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.
The landmark law, several sections of which are set to expire in 2007, helped transform U.S. politics and led to rising numbers of minorities being elected to govern. But some conservatives have suggested that parts of the law are no longer necessary, especially the section that requires nine states and parts of several others, 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 do not 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.
The marchers Saturday also were protesting a new Georgia law that strictly limits which photo identification can be used by voters at the polls. March organizers estimated the crowd at a post-march rally at 10,000 to 15,000 people and said they hoped many of the more than 100,000 people attending a spiritual gathering led by a television evangelist, Bishop T.D. Jakes, would join them. Entertainers at the rally included Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack and Willie Nelson.
"Voting rights cuts to the core values of this nation. 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," Jakes said in an interview Friday.
"Many people have died for us to have the right to vote. We can't lose that," said Carolyn Chester, 42, who works at an assisted-living facility in Baltimore and 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. 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 there are 81 members of Congress of African American, Latino, Asian and Native American descent, and thousands of minorities in elected offices across 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."
Staff writer Darryl Fears contributed to this report.