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Created: August 7, 2005
Latest Update: August 7, 2005
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August 7, 2005
In Georgia, Thousands March in Support of Voting Rights
By SHAILA DEWAN
ATLANTA, August 6 - Thousands of people marched down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive on Saturday to mark the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, in an event organized by the Rev. Jesse Jackson and attended by lawmakers and celebrities, including Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson and Harry Belafonte.
But the mood was more cautionary than celebratory, with speaker after speaker warning in a rally after the march that the law may not be renewed by Congress when some of its critical provisions expire in 2007.
Debate over the law's extension is already under way. Opponents argue that the provisions, put in place to correct Jim Crow-era discrimination, are no longer necessary, while others say that recent voting scandals show that, if anything, the law should be strengthened.
"We must be sure that every vote that is cast is a vote that's counted," said Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House Democratic leader.
Georgia provided a test case this summer when it passed a controversial bill requiring voters to show state-issued identification at the polls.
Opponents compared the bill, which inspired tearful speeches and a walkout by black lawmakers in the state legislature, to Old South poll taxes and literacy tests designed to obstruct minority voters. Proponents said the bill was necessary to prevent voter fraud.
Under the Voting Rights Act, the state measure is subject to federal approval before it becomes law.
The Georgia secretary of state, Cathy Cox, a Democrat, has objected to the measure, saying that there have been no reports of people impersonating voters at the polls and that the law would create obstacles for poor, elderly and disabled voters.
But proponents, including Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, say that if identification is required to drive, buy cigarettes or fly on a plane, then it should also be required for voting. "The right to vote is far more sacred than the right to buy a beer," said Dan McLagan, a spokesman for the governor, "and we think it should be protected just as well."
A decision on the Georgia legislation is expected by early October, a spokesman for the Justice Department said on Friday.
In an interview, Mr. Jackson said the march was held in Georgia for a broader reason. The South is home, he said, to most of the nation's poor, to a disproportionate number of the nation's soldiers, and to many of what he said were schemes to restrict voting and suppress workers.
"The South," he said, "must be revived as the battleground for our quest for a transparent and free democracy."
Activists from around the country, particularly other parts of the South, attended the march and rally, which ended at the stadium on the campus of Morris Brown, a historically black college in the heart of Atlanta.
The Rev. Spurgeon Henderson, who has led the Dixon Grove Baptist Church in Jonesboro, Ga., for 15 years, said he attended the March on Washington in 1963 when he was fresh out of high school. Today, he brought his grandchildren along to see Mr. Jackson.
"I feel compelled to be here," Mr. Henderson said, "because I believe the Voting Rights Act should remain and be enforced as it has been for the past 40 years, with no revisions at all."
Although some supporters of civil rights say the law is flawed, the talk at the rally made it clear that its symbolic significance made it something of a sacred cow.
Mark Green, a well-known New York Democrat, read a statement from the families of three civil rights workers - James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner - killed by the Klan in Mississippi in 1964 because they were helping blacks to register to vote.
"It's urgent to extend the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act that has enfranchised so many millions of Americans of color," the statement said, "a right which was obtained at the cost of many lives, including James, Andy and Mickey."