Al Sharpton’s Latest Civil Rights Battle, Against Voter ID Laws

The veteran activist has launched a campaign against voter-ID laws he says are designed to roll back civil rights. By Allison Samuels.

Tamika Moore, Birmingham News / Landov

The Rev. Al Sharpton rarely has a problem finding a platform or a pulpit from which to be heard. Over the years the noted and sometimes controversial civil-rights leader has taken to the streets to fight social injustices he’s deemed worthy of his attention.

The 57-year-old activist now has his own successful news program, Politics Nation, on MSNBC. But filming a popular daily show on a major cable-TV network or even hosting a nationally syndicated radio show each morning hasn’t lessened the outspoken minister’s desire to witness real justice up close and personal. This week, he took to the streets once more, to commemorate the historic civil rights moment, while also bringing attention to political changes that could well amount to a tipping point that alters the 2012 elections.

On Sunday, Sharpton began retracing the steps of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and his history-making march from Selma, Ala., to Montgomery in an effort to recreate three historic voting-rights marches that happened in 1965.

Congress passed the Voting Rights Act as a result of the original protests. But now, nearly 50 years later, Sharpton and many others are worried that certain hands are attempting to turn back time. The one-time presidential candidate says the march aims to shine a bright light on the unfairness of voter identification-requirement measures that have been adopted in many U.S. states.

Ever since the Republican Party won control of more state governorships and legislatures in November, a number of states have passed laws that require voters to show photo IDs at polling stations, cut back early-voting periods, or further restrict voter-registration efforts. Some studies show the measures could make it harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 31 states require all voters to show ID before voting at the polls. In 15 of these, the ID must include a photo of the voter.

“We made a lot of progress over the last 50 years, but it can all be taken away if we’re not careful,’’ says Sharpton, with a hint of exhaustion in voice. “We’re living in a time where officials can complain about voter fraud and it’s less than 1 percent. They can complain because it’s a black president and that’s their real complaint.’’

Sharpton points out that no significant changes were made to voting laws following the 2000 presidential-election controversy in Florida—in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided to stop a recount in the state, which effectively awarded George W. Bush a majority of votes in the Electoral College, over Al Gore.

“Nothing was done then because a black man didn’t get in office,’’ says Sharpton. “The 2008 election brought out all kinds of people and all races. The right simply wants to prevent that from happening again this time.’’

Sharpton says his march and rally on Friday—he will be joined by the National Urban League and the NAACP—are meant to educate people about the overall, long-term damage the laws could do, as well as help prevent the passage of additional laws restricting voter rights.

“Anger is not where it should be on this situation, because many don’t understand what’s at stake,’’ says Sharpton. “Many aren’t aware that this is a very real attempt to set back the gains made during the civil rights movement. This is really meant to stop a certain person who looks a certain way from voting.’’

Some concerned citizens who walked alongside Sharpton during the last four-day march question why voter fraud has not been treated as a serious issue during the current Republican caucuses and primaries.

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“You hadn’t heard a word about it during the last few weeks of the Republicans, with Romney and Newt.’’ says 43-year-old mechanic Simon Lawson, of Dallas. “Apparently voter fraud only occurs when someone in a poor or minority community is set to vote.’’

In addition to Sharpton’s march, the Congressional Black Caucus is planning a voter-protection tour in the coming months that will include voter-registration drives and educating people about the voter-ID issues. The caucus also is planning a rally in St. Louis on March 16. The Missouri Legislature is considering a new voter ID law that could pass just in time for the November election.

“President Obama should face a competitor in his reelection,’’ says Sharpton. “Not some made-up laws. Once people find out what’s happening, hopefully there will be an outcry that will force change.’’