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“Based on the evidence of intentional racial discrimination…as well as the history of pervasive voting-related discrimination against racial minorities…we believe that the State of Texas should be required to go through a preclearance process whenever it changes its voting laws and practices.”
-Attorney General Eric Holder at the 2013 National Urban League Conference
During four days in Philadelphia, more than 6,000 people came together for our 2013 National Urban League Conference – “Redeem the Dream: Jobs Rebuild America.” In the city that is the cradle of American democracy, in the town where Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and, later, John Legend and The Roots both sang, “Wake Up Everybody,” we called for a new Civil Rights Movement. Fifty years after the March on Washington, we came to Philadelphia to redeem Dr. King’s dream and to stand our ground against those who would turn back the clock on voting rights, equal justice, opportunity parity, jobs, and a host of other old and new civil rights challenges.
A highlight of the conference was the surprise announcement by Attorney General Eric Holder that in light of the Supreme Court’s recent decision to invalidate Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the Justice Department will ask a federal court in Texas to use Section 3 of the Act to require the state to obtain pre-approval before instituting future voting changes. Section 3 is the “bail-in” provision of the Voting Rights Act that allows federal courts to require any state that has been identified as engaging in “intentional” voting rights discrimination to undergo preclearance before those changes go into effect.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, the Justice Department had blocked clearly discriminatory redistricting and voter ID changes proposed by Texas. Immediately after the ruling, the state vowed to reinstitute those changes. Federal Court action could now prevent that from happening. The Attorney General added, “This is the department’s first action to protect voting rights following the Shelby County decision, but it will not be our last.” This was welcome news to the National Urban League, our conference attendees and every American who understands the importance of protecting our democracy and the precious right to vote.
The next day, Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, bravely took the conference stage to share her grief over the death of her son and to appeal for the repeal of “a law that has prevented the person who shot and killed my son to be held accountable, and to pay for this awful crime.” The National Urban League has previously called upon and commended the Department of Justice for efforts towards a thorough federal criminal civil rights investigation to determine whether any federal laws were violated by George Zimmerman in connection with the death of Trayvon Martin. We also joined with President Obama, the Attorney General, and others in supporting a review – and rejection – of the unconscionable Stand Your Ground laws that are contributing to needless violence and homicides in our communities.
The 2013 Conference also engaged thousands of registrants in spirited and informative panels and workshops; members of the local community in a job fair, college fair and a small business and entrepreneurship summit; and 500 young people for our Youth Summit.
With the many civil rights challenges now confronting the nation – including voting rights and equal justice, last week clearly demonstrated that the flame of the 21st century Civil Rights Movement has been sparked. The challenge before us now is to create a new Civil Rights Movement for Economic Empowerment and Justice – a continuation movement that stands on the shoulders of progress and that brings people from all walks of life, dispositions and orientations together to work to ensure that the promise of life, liberty and economic opportunity becomes real for this generation.
National Urban League board chairman John Hofmeister correctly characterized this as a moment when we are “living between the dream and the memory.” There is still much more work to do. That is why we are asking activists, advocates and everyone from near and far who support equal opportunity, rights and justice to join us at our Drum Majors for Justice Summit on August 23 in Washington, DC (www.drummajorsforjustice.com). Along with the 50th anniversary March on Washington the following day, we are beginning to chart our course forward and usher in a new Civil Rights Movement for Economic Empowerment and Justice.
We started it 50 years ago, and it’s time to finish our business.
Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League.