On the eve of a re-enactment of the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., the NAACP hit back at a Minnesota conservative group for striking at the very heart of the movement: voting rights.
NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous released a statement on Thursday that excoriates the Minnesota Majority, a self-proclaimed election-watchdog organization, for using racially inflammatory imagery to promote a proposed voter-ID law. "The Minnesota Majority advertisement plays into racial stereotypes that have no place in public debate," he said in the statement. "It reveals how weakly this group believes their own claims that they are trying to battle voter fraud. They know that the myth of voter fraud is nothing but a fraud itself, so they resort to fear and bigotry to make their case."
The group's site, WeWantVoterID.com, created a firestorm of controversy last month when it showed an African-American man dressed in prison garb and a man dressed in a mariachi costume standing alongside fictional characters. All of the characters were lined up waiting to vote, and the online banner read, "Voter Fraud: Watch How Easy It Is to Cheat in Minnesota's Elections."
The image was removed and recently replaced with a Canadian woman, a white prisoner, a superhero, a dead man and a ghost, which essentially adds insult to injury, Hilary O. Shelton, NAACP Washington Bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy, told The Root. Shelton says the replacement ad is "offensive and reckless. They think it's provocative, but they are shortchanging a serious issue. They are trying to obstruct participation in the 2012 election."
Dan McGrath, executive director of Minnesota Majority, downplayed the NAACP's reaction, calling its leaders the true race-baiters. He told The Root that he changed the original image because people were getting distracted from the true issue: voter-ID laws. When asked about the replacement image, he said that it was used to make fun of overly sensitive people.
"We changed the image to make a jab at race-baiters," McGrath said. "People are trying to inject race into this. That's not what it's about. It's about bringing fairness and integrity to the electoral system. We find it shameful how some play the race card. We're tired of it. There is too much crying wolf."
In a report titled "Defending Democracy: Confronting Modern Barriers to Voting Rights in America," which was released last year, the NAACP found that 11 percent of Americans do not have a government-issued identification. Among African Americans, 25 percent do not have the documents required to vote. The report also noted that 14 states, mostly Republican led, have enacted 25 restrictive voting measures.
"We have to make sure it's clear that we respond in a public way that this a huge deal," Shelton said. "It has to be done with two approaches. We are trying to repeal these measures and make it easier for Americans to be able to vote. At the same time, we are looking at legal responses to prevent the implementation of these laws."
Shelton also said that it is important to remember that the push for the right to vote was the progenitor of the civil rights movement.