Voting rights march draws thousands

A man clad in a striped jail suit marched with a ball and chain attached to his leg to symbolize his ancestors' struggles.

A twentysomething mother marched while strolling her 2-year-old daughter on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, feeding her Cheerios along the way.

An elderly man who marched for the same cause 50 years earlier hobbled behind thousands of participants, determined to finish the one-mile walk.

"I came here to make sure this right stays," said 78-year-old Ray Smith. "I've fought for it before, and I'll keep fighting for it no matter what my age."

On Aug. 6, approximately 20,000 people marched from the Richard Russell Federal Building to Morris Brown's Herndon Stadium to support an extension of the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act. Organized by the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, a group for social change founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the "Keep the Vote Alive" event gave participants an opportunity to fight for two key provisions of the 40-year-old act to be renewed before they expire in two years.

The event comes on the heels of a new and controversial state law that requires voters to show photo identification at Georgia's polls. Proponents claim the law will prevent voters from impersonating other people. But critics note there's been no evidence of voter misrepresentation in Georgia — and claim the law makes it difficult for the poor and elderly to vote. That's because there are only 56 offices where a photo ID can be issued in Georgia's 159 counties — and there's no location anywhere in the city of Atlanta to get a government-issued ID card.

What's more, Georgia's voter ID law can't go into effect until the federal government approves it. But that safeguard will disappear if the Voting Rights Act provisions aren't renewed before 2007. The act requires that any state changes to voting procedures must first be approved by the feds. (The U.S. Justice Department is scheduled to deliver a verdict on Georgia's law by Aug. 10.)

Without having to pass federal muster, states will have an easier time passing voting regulations that could discriminate against certain groups, says Daniel Levitas of the ACLU Voting Rights Project.

"All the attention being paid to the voter ID legislation is bringing into sharp focus the value of [the act]," Levitas says. "[The march] shed light on the real need for protection."

Levitas noted that the number of members of Congress who showed up for the march — from as far away as California — was promising. Other notable participants included Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Congressman John Lewis, Mayor Shirley Franklin and former Mayor Bill Campbell.

"The fact that so many people came out is a good sign," says Dexter Clinkscale of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. "But this is just the beginning of a continuous process."

To learn more about preserving the 1965 federal Voting Rights Act, visit www.rainbowpush.org. To learn more about the opposition to Georgia's new voter's ID rule, visit www.acluga.org/docket.html#11.

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