(The Root) — At a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference town hall session on the impact of restrictive voting laws passed in the years leading up to the 2012 presidential election, the conversation turned repeatedly to events of decades past — and especially to the civil rights activism of panelist Rep. John Lewis, whose Bloody Sunday march and beating was a landmark event in the fight for the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its prohibition of discriminatory voting practices.
Speakers including Lewis himself, Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), Donna Brazile and the Rev. Al Sharpton used the history lesson to deliver a twofold message to the audience: First, that the controversial voting restrictions put hard-fought civil rights progress at stake; second, that African Americans who can vote in November have a civic and moral obligation to exercise the hard-fought-for right.
"In the 1960s, we never would have predicted we'd be fighting an attempt to suppress minority voting power today," Congressional Black Caucus Chair Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said, predicting that state voting laws requiring photo identification and proof of citizenship, and limiting absentee and early voting, could cost as many as 5 million black votes across the country in the November election.
On the disparate impact of such laws on African-American voters, Fudge said, "Not only are minority voters less likely to possess an ID, but they're more likely than white voters to be selectively asked to provide an ID," and pointed to a Texas law that allows a hunting license to be used as an official form of ID to vote, but not a student ID.
"It's very clear who they want to vote and who they don't want to vote," she added.
Panelist Ron Christie, founder and president of Christie Strategies, and former special assistant to President George W. Bush, disagreed. "As a lawyer, as a student of history, my answer to 'Is this a racial question?' is 'no,' " he said. Conservative commentator Crystal Wright echoed that sentiment, insisting, "I don't think Martin Luther King fought for us to sit here in 2012 and say black people can't, can't, can't," and highlighting what she said was the widespread voter fraud that the laws were intended to address.
Lewis, who reminded the audience that he "gave a little blood for the right to vote," lamented, "People died for this right, people stood in immovable lines. In another period in our history, people had to pass so-called literacy tests; they had to count the number of bubbles on a bar of soap, and jelly beans in a jar. We thought we solved this issue with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 … Why now in an election year must we fight it all over again?"
Sharpton advocated what he called a two-pronged strategy for that battle: "We've got to fight to change the laws and do everything we need to do to vote this year … But as much as we're outraged about it, we need to be proactive and deal with it."
Lewis, agreed, urging audience members, "Whatever it takes, we got to get out there and vote like we never, ever voted before."
It was a message Cleaver put even more directly. "If someone doesn't vote," he said, "their African-American credentials need to be snatched."
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer.