MILWAUKEE - Civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson capped off a day of grass-roots political strategizing yesterday by imploring NAACP members to urge their congressional representatives to extend soon-to-expire provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
"The Voting Rights Act as we know it is on the chopping block," Jackson told an audience of about 300 at Milwaukee's Midwest Airlines Center, where the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is holding its 96th convention this week.
In a panel discussion that was equal parts call-to-action and lobbying lesson, Jackson and several members of the Congressional Black Caucus called on delegates to pressure lawmakers on issues from ending the Iraq war to choosing a politically moderate U.S. Supreme Court justice.
Recertification of the Voting Rights Act remained the chief issue and has emerged as a central theme of the convention.
Forty years ago, the Voting Rights Act outlawed such practices as poll taxes and literacy tests designed to discourage minority participation.
But the law includes temporary provisions set to expire in 2007. One requires states to obtain federal approval before making changes to voting times or places, a provision designed to prevent discrimination. Another includes a section demanding areas with large percentage of non-English speakers to provide ballots in other languages.
Participants scribbled notes and peppered the panel with questions on how to communicate effectively with lawmakers. The NAACP responded with a thick legislative guide, a sort of how-to manual, including sample letters to lawmakers and talking points.
Jackson encouraged members to join an Aug. 6 march in Atlanta on the Voting Rights Act planned by a coalition of civil rights groups ranging from the National Council of La Raza to the National Urban League.
Throughout the first two days of the NAACP convention, such lawmakers as Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Republican Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, the House Judiciary chairman, pledged to work with congressional leaders to reauthorize the act.
But Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat, told the convention audience yesterday not to be swayed by the promises of some politicians.
"One of my colleagues said he'd be with you, but understand - be with you for what?" she asked. "We not only need to reauthorize the old stuff, we have to implement the hot stuff and deal with the problems such as jurisdictions that have not had a good record counting votes like Florida and Ohio."
Some participants said they feel powerless in influencing who will be named to the U.S. Supreme Court to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
"Changes to the Supreme Court is the biggest thing that's going to be affecting us," said Pamela Davidson of Galesburg, Ill. "There's abortion and civil rights. I wouldn't have my job at John Deere if it weren't for affirmative action. They'd just hire a bunch of good ol' boys."
Jackson-Lee and others encouraged participants not to be intimidated. "We need to make sure there is not a place this administration goes where some of us are not asking them, 'What kind of judge are you going to support?,'" said Jackson-Lee. "You can be in the mix by chastising your legislators and encouraging them to approve somebody with a moderate balance."
Earlier in the day, Obama addressed several thousand at the convention and lauded that kind of grass-roots activism. Delegates gave Obama a rock star-like welcome as he began a short speech commending the NAACP for its work in the trenches.
He said critics who have attempted to write off the NAACP, an organization that has admittedly struggled to reach young people, are wrong about the strength of the group.
"I would say the power of the NAACP, and America, derives from ordinary people doing extraordinary things," Obama said, receiving rousing applause.
Obama followed a speech by entertainer and activist Harry Belafonte, who received an award from the organization for his lifelong dedication to civil rights.
Belafonte criticized such U.S. foreign policy decisions as the Iraq war and African aid, and he pleaded that the NAACP push its activity beyond U.S. borders to Africa and elsewhere in the developing world.
"This association's mandate was to protect and serve colored people," he said. "Does that mean only colored people in some places? Does that mean colored people some of the time? I hope not."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun