Martin Luther King III was among the speakers at his father’s memorial in Southwest Washington on Thursday, as members of Congress, civil rights leaders and a cross section of the faith community gathered to raise awareness about what they call the rollback of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“What is most tragic is that we are still fighting for voting rights in 2015,” said King, adding that the civil rights community was really caught off guard by the decision.
“No one knew that the Supreme Court would weaken the Voting Rights Act,” he said, referring to the court’s 2013 decision requiring Congress to come up with new criteria based on current data in deciding which states would require government oversight. “A few days ago, when I was talking to Rev. [Jesse] Jackson and Ambassador Young, I said we have a fight on our hands like never before.”
Shortly after the 2013 decision, Republican lawmakers in Texas, North Carolina and in several other states passed new laws that critics charged amounted to voter suppression. Those laws have been challenged in courts, with mixed results.
During a White House press call, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that investigations were underway in several states and that she was heartened by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit decision on Monday to strike down a Texas voter-ID law.
President Obama on Thursday told a group of civil rights leaders at a 50th anniversary celebration of the Voting Rights Act that “while the Voting Rights Act broke down many of the formal and more ridiculous barriers to voting in 2015, there are still too many barriers to the vote, and too many people trying to erect new barriers to the vote.”
The Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor of the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in the District, delivered the invocation at the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. “We find ourselves in the middle of a new Reconstruction, and we have to continue to march and to fight to increase voter participation,” he said.
The Rev. James C. Perkins, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and many other faith leaders said they must again be in the vanguard of social change as faith leaders were during the civil rights battles of the 1960s.
“The plan is that we are going to educate our pastors first and foremost what the new laws are in their respective states, and they in turn will educate their people,” Perkins said. “There are a lot of technical challenges in these laws that if people are not aware of them they can run into challenges with the criminal justice system.”
Perkins said the Progressive National Baptist Convention, in conjunction with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Drum Major Institute, will distribute a “voter rights tool kit” that pastors will be encouraged to download. “They then can create a political action committee in their church to register new voters. . . . Our goal at the Progressive National Convention is to register 200,000 new voters.”
The Rev. Raphael Warnock, pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, called what has happened in the two years since the Supreme Court ruling “the most vicious sustained and systematic assault on voting rights that we have seen since the law was enacted 50 years ago.”
“There are some who are claiming that they are trying to protect the integrity of the vote,” Warnock said. “It is obvious to us that they are trying to prevent certain people from being eligible to vote.”
Melanie Campbell, president and chief executive of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, said that the National Urban League, the National Action Network and other civil rights groups have formed a “Black Voter Alliance” — a 40-member bipartisan group — to challenge the new voter laws that they say have made it harder for people to vote.
“What you have going on now that in states like Texas and North Carolina, they are taking away the very things that made voting easier,” Campbell said. “In the state of Ohio, the names of 180,000 people have been taken off the voter rolls, they are making it harder for students to vote, they are changing voter-ID laws and just making it hard for people to exercise their right to vote.”