Rally in front of Shelby County courthouse participants holding up signs of states covered by the Voting Rights Act. (Courtesy Photo)
Rally in front of Shelby County courthouse participants holding up signs of states covered by the Voting Rights Act. (Courtesy Photo)
Rally in front of Shelby County courthouse participants holding up signs of states covered by the Voting Rights Act. (Courtesy Photo)

by John Zippert
Special to the NNPA from the Greene County Democrat

The Shelby County Chapter of the NAACP with support from the statewide organization and many partners held a panel, march, rally and church services this weekend to remember the second anniversary of the Shelby vs. Holder decision by the U. S. Supreme Court and work to restore the Voting Rights Act (VRA).

The Supreme Court in a June 2013 – 5 to 4 decision – ruled that the criteria in Section 4 of the act describing the criteria for states and geographic areas that would require preclearance of voting changes in Section 5 was outdated and unconstitutional. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Shelby County, Alabama case gutted the VRA and made it ineffective in over-ruling discriminatory changes in local and state voting rules and procedures.

Many southern states have adopted more restrictive voter registration and identification rules, reduced early voting, and generally adopted policies that suppress the votes of poor people and people of color, since the Shelby vs. Holder decision.

The Alabama State Conference of the NAACP held a panel discussion on Friday night at the New Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Calera, Alabama. Among the participants were: Laughlin McDonald of the ACLU Voting Rights Project, Congresswomen Terri Sewell, Jerome Gray of the Alabama Democratic Conference, Denise Sanchez of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice and Hillary Shelton of the NAACP Washington Bureau.

Congresswomen Sewell pledged to introduce a new bill called the Voting Rights Reconstruction Act of 2015 which will modernize the requirements of the 1965 VRA and make sure Alabama is included as one of the states which will require pre-clearance of voting challenges.

Sewell told the story of the difficulties she had in securing a picture voter ID for her own father, who is now disabled, so he could vote in the November 2014 general election. “There were many obstacles and barriers in the Dallas County Courthouse which limited my father’s access to the Registrar’s office to secure the proper voting ID. It took a day of work and carrying him in a wheel chair up stairs but we were finally successful in getting a picture ID card,” said Sewell.

Jerome Gray explained “ in 1965 there were 150,000 Black voters registered in Alabama but now in 2015 there are 770,000, although there are still 300,000 or more unregistered Black voters. There were ten Black elected officials in 1965 and now there are 800.”

“The VRA did away with literacy tests, the poll tax and limitations on access to the polls. The VRA in Section 208 allows the voter to bring anyone to help him or her vote. There are language requirements in areas where Hispanics are a majority that the ballot be in printed in Spanish and other languages of the predominant voting block,” said Gray.

He said, “ We still have 105,000 mostly Black felons in Alabama whose right to vote must be restored. We also need to understand the importance of voting and that a high turnout of voters can win elections.”

Hillary Shelton of the NAACP spoke to the uphill battle ahead in Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act. He announced that the NAACP will be holding a six week march to restore the VRA beginning on August 1 in Selma, Alabama and traveling north through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia on to arrive in Washington on September 15.

On Saturday, about 150 people marched ten blocks through downtown Columbiana, the county seat of Shelby County to the Courthouse. A rally with many additional speakers was held in front of the Courthouse.

Attorney Duell Ross of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a lawyer in the Shelby County case called “the Voting Rights Act, the crown jewel of our democracy, a checkpoint for justice that must be restored. The VRA act was the most effective law for civil rights in the past fifty years. We cannot allow the Supreme Court to take it away. The murders in Charleston, S. C. are related to and flow from the Shelby vs. Holder decision. We now all know that ‘Black lives matter’ but Black votes matter as well.”

Ben Montarosa of Mi Familia Vota, a Hispanic group dedicated to extending the vote to Latinos said a new Alabama law requiring proof of citizenship to vote will add more barriers to voting.

Senator Hank Sanders of Selma, representing the SOS Coalition for Democracy and Justice said, “ I came to make three points, voting is powerful; we are truly powerful if we work and vote together; and symbols are powerful.”

Sanders pointed out that, “having the name of a Confederate General and KKK Grand Dragon, like Edmund Pettus, on the bridge in Selma is a symbol; the murders in the Mother Emmanuel AME Zion Church in Charleston are symbolic – the murder drove past a hundred churches to get to the most historic one to the freedom struggle in South Carolina.”

He said, “Voting is powerful and affects everything we do; the air we breath; the water we drink; the food we eat; our birth – conception and abortion; the education we receive; jobs and opportunity; even our dying and burial are regulated by our votes. We must all be registered and we must vote in every election, all the way down the ballot, not just for President but for every political office and constitutional issue.”

Dr. Richard Arrington, first Black Mayor of Birmingham, Alabama was the final and keynote speaker. He said, “I see the Shelby vs. Holder decision as part of a long continuum in securing the rights and freedom of Black people in this country. It is disturbing that we as Black people need a tragedy, like the one in Charleston this week, to shake us out of our apathy. You need to ask yourself, was I at the polls last election to vote for those who select the police force, pave the roads, cover the ditches, educate our children – or did I leave it to others to make these important decisions that affect our future.”

A church service was held on Sunday afternoon to round out the weekend program and call for divine inspiration and guidance in the struggle to restore the Voting Rights Act.

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