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Saturday, August 06, 2005

CBS 46 Atlanta - Thousands March to Preserve Voting Rights Act

CBS 46 Atlanta - Thousands March to Preserve Voting Rights ActThousands March to Preserve Voting Rights Act
Aug 6, 2005, 3:39 PM
Lyndon Johnson signs voting rights bill, August 1965
Lyndon Johnson signs voting rights bill, August 1965
Selma, Alabama, 7 March 1965
Selma, Alabama, 7 March 1965

ATLANTA (AP) -- More than 10,000 marchers stormed Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and trekked through the historic Atlanta University Center chanting, singing and clapping on Saturday in support of extending the 40-year-old Voting Rights Act.

Organizers hope the "Keep the Vote Alive" march will pressure Congress and President Bush to extend key provisions of the landmark law, which expires in 2007.

"Forty years later, we're still marching for the right to vote," said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who participated in the civil rights struggles that helped secure passage of the law in 1965. "Don't give up, don't give in. Keep the faith, keep your eyes on the prize."

Activists from across the country -- including Dick Gregory and Harry Belafonte -- joined Lewis, NAACP President Bruce Gordon and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who heads the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, at Saturday's demonstration.

"The most fundamental aspect of our democratic existence is at stake," Belafonte said as the march got underway. "We are the keepers of the gates of democracy ... We must stand vigilant, as there are those among us who would steal our liberty and steal our souls."

Gregory added that "there is nothing more important in America than the right to register" to vote, even if that right is never exercised. He also noted that he was marching Saturday in much safer times than four decades ago, when he and other demonstrators faced violent police opposition in Selma, Ala.

"We were scared then, but there is no fear here today," said Gregory.

Civil rights groups fear conservatives will try to modify two key provisions of the law. One requires nine states, mostly in the South, to get federal approval before changing voting rules. The other requires election officials to provide voting material in the native language of immigrant voters who don't speak English.

In the weekly Democratic radio address, Lewis said his party is committed to strengthening the sections of the law that are set to expire.

"Our democracy depends on protecting the right of every American citizen to vote in every election," Lewis said.

Many supporters preached education and awareness Saturday.

"The right to vote is not in danger, but we must protect it against discrimination," Jackson said at a rally at the end of the march.

Activists also used the rally to protest Georgia's recently passed voter identification law, which critics call the most restrictive in the country. NAACP President Gordon on Saturday called the law "the most outrageous, oppressive, discriminatory" law he'd ever seen.

If that bill is approved by the Department of Justice, Jackson warned on Friday, it could "spread like a virus" to other states. Rainbow/PUSH is among a list of objectors that have urged the Department of Justice not to approve the law.

Demonstrators braved the heat and humidity for three hours early Saturday morning before the march began.

The hourlong hike to Morris Brown College's Herndon Stadium got off in fits and starts as the media clamored to photograph high-profile participants like Jackson, country singer Willie Nelson and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the former Southern Christian Leadership Conference president.

Jerky and disconnected at times, the crowd -- which Atlanta Police estimate numbered between 10,000 and 15,000 marchers -- was buoyed by marching bands and songs from the civil rights era.

Supporters who filled the stadium bleachers at the march's end were entertained by Stevie Wonder and greeted by members of Congress, civil rights activists and religious leaders who helped organize the event.

Many of the organizers marched alongside their constituents, including Gordon, who was attending his first march after only a week as NAACP leader.

"People need to understand if this act is not reauthorized and improved, we will lose the progress of the last 40 years," he said.

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