Standing shoulder to shoulder from sidewalk to sidewalk as far as the eye could see, 6,000 voting rights supporters marched through the streets of Winston Salem, North Carolina to demand that the Voting Rights Act of 1965 be restored and that North Carolina’s voter suppression laws passed in 2013 be overturned.
The march came at the conclusion of the first day of a trial challenging North Carolina’s restrictive voting laws.
The suit by the North Carolina NAACP and US Department of Justice filed in federal court seeks to overturn the state’s Voter Information Verification Act of 2013.
The trial began on July 13 and is expected to last three weeks as a federal judge hears testimony from more than 100 witnesses.
As the marchers marched through Winston Salem, they chanted, “Forward together! Not one step back,” the slogan of the state’s Moral Majority movement, a coalition of social justice groups that has been fighting a wave of reaction in North Carolina and other Southern states.
“This is our Selma!” declared NAACP President Rev Dr. William Barber at a rally at the end of the march.
Barber was referring to the historic march across the Edmund Petus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, a day that became known as “Bloody Sunday” after the marchers were attacked by police trying to prevent the march.
Four months after the Selma march, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law.
The law restored the voting rights of African Americans, who had been barred from voting in Southern states such as North Carolina.
“We need to remember that these rights were won by blood,” said Barber. “Blood has been shed — back then and right now. How dare the Tea Party trample on the blood of our martyrs? How dare the Koch brothers, with their money, try to violate our rights that were written in blood? 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was signed in blood, how dare somebody try to use political power to desecrate the blood of the martyrs? How dare they desecrate the graves and the memory and the blood of Martin and Medgar and James Reeb and Jimmie Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo and four girls in a Birmingham church and nine souls in a Charleston church?”
The key to enforcing the Voting Rights Act had been a section of the law that gave the federal government the authority to oversee elections and election laws in states that systematically denied the vote to African Americans.
Forty-eight years after the Voting Rights Act became law, the Supreme Court rescinded the oversight authority that prevented states from passing laws that erected barriers to voting by African Americans.
Two months after the Supreme Court ruling, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCroy signed into law the Voter Identification Verification Act.
The bill enacting the law had been lying dormant in legislative committee, but came to life after the Supreme Court’s decision and within weeks passed out of both houses of the state’s General Assembly and onto Gov. McCroy’s desk for his signature.
The law requires voters to present state approved identification papers when voting.
It also shortens early voting by seven days, eliminates the option of registering to vote on the same day that a vote is cast, prohibits a person from voting in a precinct where the voter is registered but no longer resides, and ends pre-registration for 16- and 17-year olds so that they can vote when they turn 18.
The trial now in progress will determine whether the last four items constitute voter suppression.
Another trial at a later date will determine if the state’s voter ID law does the same.
The state argues that the Voter Information Verification law is not intended to keep African Americans from voting.
But opponents of the law point out that in 2012 70 percent of African American voters voted early compared to 53 percent of white voters.
Opponents of the law say that while 22 percent of the state’s population is African American, 34 percent of those who registered to vote on the same day they voted were African American.
Both provisions, opponents argue, constitute barriers to African American voting.
Rev. Barber called the Voter Information Verification Act “a sin.”
“We must resist this sin because too many have died! Too many have suffered! Too many have bled! There’s too much power in the blood for us to be silent now!” said Rev. Barber.
Rev. Barber urged voting rights supporters “to recommit and reconsecrate ourselves back to the movement. We will not let what was won be taken away. We will restore the dream.”