The Washington Post

At Black Caucus dinner, Michelle Obama urges members to get out the vote

The Rev. Derrick Harkins, director of faith outreach for the Democratic National Committee, Martin Luther King III and his wife, Arndrea Waters King, and Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie and Michael Blake, deputy director of the Obama campaign's Operation Vote program, after the Congressional Black Caucus annual prayer breakfast. (Hamil R. Harris/ The Washington Post)

Michelle Obama used a speech to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation on Saturday night to urge delegates to register voters and encourage African Americans to turn out in November’s election.

Speaking in Washington at the foundation’s annual Phoenix dinner, the first lady likened turning out the vote to the civil rights struggles of previous eras.

“Make no mistake about it, this is the march of our time,” Obama told the audience at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. “Marching door-to-door registering people to vote, marching everyone you know to the polls every single election.” That effort, she said, “is the movement of our era — protecting that fundamental right, not just for this election but for the next generation and generations to come.”

Obama did not refer explicitly to voter-ID laws that that have been passed or proposed in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, but she warned against being dissuaded from voting.

“We cannot let anyone discourage us from casting our ballots,” she said. “We cannot let anyone make us feel unwelcome in the voting booth. It is up to us to make sure that in every election, every voice is heard and every vote is counted. That means making sure our laws preserve that right.”

Republicans have backed voter ID laws, which often require photo identification, arguing that they help prevent ballot fraud. Democrats and voter advocates say the measures could be used to keep some poor and minority voters away from the polls because it can be more burdensome for them to get the required IDs. Opponents have mounted several legal challenges to the laws.

This year’s dinner issued honors to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.; film director George Lucas; Harvey Gantt, the first African American mayor of Charlotte; and Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.).

Earlier at the convention center, issues of faith dominated the final day of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual legislative conference.

Faith leaders discussed one of the most controversial issues facing them in the black community: President Obama’s public support for same-sex marriage.

Opening a roundtable session by calling for a civilized discussion, Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Emanuel Cleaver II (D-Mo.) noted that the president “has not asked anybody to introduce legislation on same-sex marriage. What the president did is stand up one day and say, ‘This is my position.’ That’s it.”

Views on the issue differed. The most unequivocal opposition to the president’s stance on same-sex marriage came from the Rev. Annette Wilson.

“When God says a man should not lie with another man as a woman, that’s what he meant,” she said. “When He says that two women should not lie together as a man would a woman, that’s what he meant. He meant what he said, and we have to give an account for it. . . . When we know what God says and then go against it, there are consequences.”

Another panelist who disagreed with Obama explained why she would not let her view change her support for him. The Rev. Mankekolo Mahlangu-Ngcobo said that “even though I was not in favor of what the president has said,” she supported Obama “because as an African immigrant, his immigration policy is what I can support. I am an educator — his education platform is what I can support. I am in health care, and his health-care — Obamacare — he really cares.”

Jesse L. Jackson, by contrast, said that he supported same-sex marriage but that he could not see why the issue had gained prominence.

“I support the proposition. I cannot put it on the front of the line,” he told the assembled delegates. “Don’t win the same-sex debate and lose the right to a house, health and education.”

This was a view echoed in remarks from the Rev. S. Todd Yeary of Douglas Memorial Community Church in Baltimore, who said the issue was being used as a wedge to divide black voters.

“David slew Goliath with five stones,” he said. “We’ve got to decide when we’re going to stop stoning one another for the issues we really don’t all understand.”

The final day of the 42nd conference opened with the caucus’s annual prayer breakfast, addressed by Noel Jones, pastor of the City of Refuge Church in Gardena, Calif., who preached that God alone empowers people to make a difference in someone else’s life.

“We are living in a time when we as African Americans have given everybody else the rights to our lives because we believe that we need everybody to make our lives work,” Jones said in an interview after his sermon. “At the end of the day, we are responsible for whatever happens in our lives to make our lives work.”

With the November election only weeks away, the Rev. Barbara Williams Skinner reminded people in her prayer that lawmakers represent those who have no voice. She prayed for the children for whom “nobody checks their homework, nobody looks at their report card, nobody cares whether they come home or not.”

Drawing applause more than a dozen times during her speech later that evening, Michelle Obama’s remarks fared better than the president’s did at the same event last year.

Calling on the caucus to back his jobs bill, the president urged the audience in 2011 to “take off your bedroom slippers, put on your marching shoes” and support him, comments that were not well received by some present.

Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

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