Voting rights a rallying cry at MLK march 50th anniversary event

Senior Democrats and leaders of the civil rights and labor movements marked the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington by summoning a younger generation of activists to fight for a restoration of the Voting Rights Act to ensure universal access to the ballot box. 

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As thousands ringed the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial, speakers mixed themes of the past and present in paying tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the iconic “I Have A Dream” speech he delivered to combat racial discrimination.

“Those days, for the most part, are gone, but we have another fight,” thundered Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights veteran and House Democrat who is the last surviving speaker from the 1963 March on Washington. “There are forces who want to take us back. But we can’t go back.”

Lewis and other leaders in the movement found a rallying cry in the June decision by the Supreme Court to strike down a key section of the Voting Rights Act, which has prompted states like Texas and North Carolina to move ahead with laws requiring voters to show photo identification.

“I am not going to stand by and let the Supreme Court take the right to vote away from us,” Lewis said. He urged the crowd to “make some noise” and “get in the way” to protect universal access to the polls.

“The vote is precious,” he said. “It is almost sacred. It is the most powerful nonviolent tool we have in our democracy, and we have to use it.”

Lewis was 23 when he spoke at the March in 1963. A year-and-a-half later, he was beaten by police in Alabama as he led civil rights demonstrators across the bridge in Selma.

In addition to voting rights, speakers alluded to the Florida killing of Trayvon Martin and other racially-charged cases to denounce racial profiling and state-based “Stand Your Ground” laws. Democratic lawmakers and union leaders pushed for an increase in the minimum wage and other measures to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.

Speaking before Lewis, Attorney General Eric Holder said that while the nation civil rights leaders envisioned five decades ago has not yet been fully realized, “it is finally within our grasp.”

“Today, we look to the work that remains unfinished, and make note of our nation's shortcomings, not because we wish to dwell on imperfection – but because, as those who came before us, we love this great country,” Holder said. “We want this nation to be all that it was designed to be – and all that it can become.”

Holder, the nation’s first African American attorney general, said that the civil rights movement, which in the middle of the 20th century was devoted to the advancement of blacks, had broadened in the 21st century to include “the cause of women, of Latinos, of Asian Americans, of lesbians, of gays, of people with disabilities, and of countless others across this country who still yearn for equality, opportunity, and fair treatment.”

In a speech lasting less than 10 minutes, the attorney general made oblique references to the issues of voting rights and criminal justice that many speakers before him had specifically championed.

“This morning, we affirm that this struggle must, and will, go on in the cause of our nation’s quest for justice – until every eligible American has the chance to exercise his or her right to vote, unencumbered by discriminatory or unneeded procedures, rules, or practices,” Holder said. “It must go on until our criminal justice system can ensure that all are treated equally and fairly in the eyes of the law.”

In the wake of the Supreme Court decision invalidating part of the Voting Rights Act, Holder’s Justice Department on Friday sued the state of Texas to block its new law requiring voters to provide photo identification. The Justice Department is also investigating the handling of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing.

Speaking back-to-back, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) each recalled King’s words to urge the crowd to keep up the fight for civil rights, both for African Americans and for women.

“When women succeed, America succeeds,” Pelosi said. “When people of color succeed, America succeeds.”

Pelosi, the first woman Speaker, said she was on the Mall for King’s “Dream” speech a half century ago. Looking out over the throng, she asked, “So who among you is going to be Speaker of the House, or president of the United States?”

She noted that King’s memorial statue now sits beside presidents, “so appropriately,” but she said his dream was not to be personally celebrated, but to have his agenda enacted. She called for new voting rights laws, an increase in the minimum wage, and guarantees for paid sick leave for workers.

Echoing the message of others, Hoyer said that Barack Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president “testifies to the progress we’ve made” but that more needed to be done, particularly to guarantee access to the ballot box.

“We are here, all of us, here to declare that we shall not rest nor we should be satisfied by the way things stand,” Hoyer said. “Too many have no voice in our democracy.”

Obama is scheduled to speak from the Lincoln Memorial at a separate event Wednesday on the 50th anniversary of King’s speech.

Other speakers on Saturday included the NAACP President Ben Jealous, King’s son, Martin Luther King III, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Newark Mayor and New Jersey Senate candidate Cory Booker, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose National Action Network organized the event. The rally on the Mall culminated with a march from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument.