The black church fueled the 20th century civil rights movement with everything from voter registration drives to justice rallies, and this week, the Rev. Al Sharpton and National Action Network will launch a modern day initiative to register and educate black voters and protect their votes.
Thursday at Eatonville, Florida’s Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church, National Action Network will launch its "Voter Engagement Tour," that will travel to key states where voter suppression and disenfranchisement is practiced and voter identification laws are prevalent. The tour is being led by the Rev. Michael A. Walrond Jr., of NAN’s Ministers Division in conjunction with Education for a Better America.
“The black church is that support bastion for voter enfranchisement and raising national awareness,” said Tanya Clay House, public policy director for the Lawyer’s Committee on Civil Rights. “I am pleased to see Rev. Sharpton and the National Action Network launch this effort,” House told BlackAmericaweb.com.
The tour launch in Florida comes just as that state squares off in court with the federal government over the legality of Florida’s efforts to purge its voter rolls.
U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle is holding a hearing today on whether to block Florida's push to remove voters who may not be U.S. citizens.
Federal authorities sued the state earlier this month, saying the state must halt the voter purge because it is too close to the Aug. 14 election.
State officials asked local election supervisors to check out the citizenship status of more than 2,600 voters. While more than 100 non-U.S. citizens have been removed supervisors have also discovered more than 500 people on the list were U.S. citizens.
Most counties in Florida have stopped removing voters due to differing opinions over whether it is legal.
Speaking recently on Sharpton’s Politics Nation on MSNBC, Ion Sancho, the Leon County, Florida supervisor of elections said a majority of the state’s supervisors “will not conduct any illegal activity. We’re going to ensure our voters are protected.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott and his administration have a list of some 180,000 voters who they believe are ineligible to cast ballots in the state.
But the DOJ and justice advocates fear the list includes a large number of legitimate voters and that the purge violates the National Voter Registration Act that says voter roll maintenance must stop 90 days before an election.
The key to combatting the assault on voting rights is to educate voters and to register voters, says Melanie Campbell, president and chief executive officer of the National Coalition for Black Civic Participation.
“About 30 percent of the blacks in this country who are eligible to vote are not registered,” Campbell told BlackAmericaWeb.com. When you go into churches with voter education and voter registration efforts, you have a captive audience, she said.
“We respond when the message comes from a trusted voice in communities we trust,” she said. For African-Americans, that place has often been the church.
Already this year, the Empowerment Movement, headed by the Rev. Jamal Bryant in Baltimore, has registered more than 100,000 voters through registration efforts in black churches, organizers said.
From now until election day in November, the National Action Network will go throughout the country, educating voters on how to combat restrictive new voter requirements and ultimately protect voter rights.
Cities and states with a history of issues voter protection issues will be the major focus, Sharpton said.
“NAN's mission is to work to ensure that every vote in every community across the nation is counted,” Sharpton said in a prepared statement. “Voter suppression efforts are threatening the notion of democracy as we know it. When about 5 million Americans may be disenfranchised from the polls this November, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, we understand that complacency is not an option.”