Thousands march to ‘Keep Vote Alive’

ATLANTA — The torch of the civil rights movement was passed to the next generation Aug. 6 as a march of over 20,000 filled the streets here on the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.

Contingents from unions and civil rights groups were joined by peace and justice activists from across the country organizing to “Keep the Vote Alive.”

Angered at racist suppression of the vote in the last two presidential elections and a new restrictive law passed by the Georgia Legislature, the multiracial outpouring put the White House and Congress on notice that anything less than full protection of voting rights for everyone is not acceptable.

“We were hosed, we were beaten and we didn’t give in,” declared Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who led the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march for voting rights with Martin Luther King Jr. “Don’t you give in either,” he urged the crowd, referring to the provisions of the act that must be reauthorized by Congress before Jan. 1, 2007.

Weathering the hot Georgia sun, those who had marched for the right to vote in the 1960s mingled with those who had not yet been born when the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.

“This is the first time I’m marching for anything,” said retired transit worker Archie Rayford, who was wearing an Amalgamated Transit Union Local 732 placard. “I thought about those who died and were beat up, and here I am.”

Standing with her parents, Candace Clinkscale, 7, said she came “so I can vote in the next 10 years and have a voice.”

“We have to make sure Congress knows there is significant support for reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act or they may try to change it,” said her father, Stephen Clinkscale, who works in construction near Atlanta.

Participants from as far as Louisiana, Florida, Ohio and Michigan were greeted by the NAACP marching band and a pre-march rally at the Russell Federal Building.

“I’m here to support the finalization of the Voting Rights Act. We don’t want to have to do this every 25 years,” said Sallie Tilman Watson, who traveled 10 and a half hours on one of 10 buses from Florida.

“We are marching to extend the Voting Rights Act,” declared the Rev. Jesse Jackson, president of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, which initiated the action. “We march for protections against language discrimination. We march against unfair schemes to deny voting. We march for workers’ rights to organize.”

The loudest applause went up as he said, “We march to end the war in Iraq.”

The dramatic mile-long march to Herndon Stadium at Morris Brown College was led by Jackson, members of Congress and star entertainers, including Harry Belafonte and Willie Nelson.

As the stadium filled up, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney was called upon to open the program. “The AFL-CIO stands shoulder to shoulder together, fighting together, marching together, to guarantee every person’s rights,” he said to cheers. “Without the Voting Rights Act the enemies of voting rights and civil rights continue.”

Later Andy Stern, president of SEIU, addressed the rally, introducing Anna Burger, president of the Change to Win union coalition. “Workers stand for the right to vote in the workforce, the town, the state and the country,” she said.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) introduced 14 other members of Congress, most of whom would not have been elected without the protections of the Voting Rights Act.

“Our people have been denied the right to vote. We will remember Florida and Ohio. Members of Congress are here to take on President Bush and John Roberts,” Waters said, referring to Bush’s Supreme Court nominee.

Calling the passage of the Voting Rights Act “our country’s finest hour,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi pledged 100-percent support by House Democrats for strengthening the act.

Days earlier, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales issued a statement supporting reauthorization of Section 203 of the act, which protects against language discrimination, but saying nothing about Section 5, which requires that states with records of voter discrimination submit any changes in their voting systems for federal review.

“We must reaffirm and insist that the Voting Rights Act be reauthorized in totality,” said Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, representing the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “This is not a tool to divide, but a tool to empower and bring equity and justice to every American,” he said, concluding, “We win together.”

Georgia recently adopted one of the most restrictive measures in the country, requiring that only government-issued photo identification can be used to vote. Thousands of voters do not have this form of identification. The law is pending federal approval under Section 5.

“That we have to have a march in 2005 for the Voting Rights Act is ridiculous,” said Stevie Wonder. “We have the right to pay taxes, to fight and die in war, we must have the right to vote forever.”

Performances by Wonder and Roberta Flack were a rally highlight.

Leslie Cagan, chair of United for Peace and Justice, recalled that Aug. 6 also marked the 60th anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan. She emphasized the common struggle for voting rights and peace.