Al Sharpton opens voter-rights center with rally at historic Baptist church

Wednesday marked the opening of the National Action Network’s Freedom Sunday national headquarters in Birmingham, Ala., and a keynote address at a community rally by Al Sharpton at the city’s 16th Street Baptist Church.

By Bob Allen

Activist and ordained Pentecostal minister Al Sharpton challenged a crowd July 30 at the historic 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., to reclaim voting rights hard won during Freedom Summer, a voter-registration effort credited with bringing national attention to the Civil Rights Movement 50 years ago.

Sharpton, president of the New York-based National Action Network, visited Birmingham to kick off Freedom Summer 2014, a campaign targeting eight Southern states both to register voters and fight efforts to suppress minority votes. For the launch, he chose the site of a September 1963 bombing that killed four little girls and became a symbol of the struggle for civil rights.

al sharptonThe following year Freedom Summer was begun in an effort to register as many blacks as possible to vote in the state of Mississippi and to challenge racial segregation resulting from decades of Jim Crow laws in the South.

Fifty years later, Sharpton said, voter disenfranchisement is once again rearing its head in the form of voter ID laws and last year’s Supreme Court ruling that a section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requiring areas with a history of discrimination to receive federal approval before making voting changes was unconstitutional.

“We don’t need a commemoration of the Civil Rights Movement; we need a continuation,” Sharpton said. “We don’t need to just remember what happened; we need to remember it in order to inspire us to do it now.”

The eight states that will be the focus of the campaign are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Virginia. Most have enacted laws in recent years requiring a photo ID in order to vote.

Proponents of such laws claim they are needed to prevent voter fraud. Opponents say they unfairly burden the elderly and the poor, who are less likely than other Americans to already possess a photo ID such as a driver’s license.

“The only net result of these new laws is to try and bring down the amount of votes,” Sharpton told a fired-up Wednesday night crowd at 16th Street Baptist Church in video posted by the Birmingham News.

Sharpton said at a press conference in the church basement that Freedom Summer 2014 is “a movement of demonstration, dedication and legislation” opposing attempts to unravel what was achieved in Birmingham and across the nation with the Civil Rights Act 50 years ago and the Voting Rights Act the following year.

“Why are we, the self-purported biggest and most successful democracy in the world, now making it more difficult to vote rather than easier?” he asked.

At its recent annual meeting in Baltimore, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, applauding the increasing diversity of Southern Baptist churches and repudiating “this nation’s long history of racial segregation as well as the complicity of Southern Baptists who resisted or opposed the dismantling of the evil of racial hierarchy in our churches or society.”

Sharpton also responded to comments by Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead accusing him of race-baiting and misleading the public in an effort to divide people and boost Democratic turnout in November.

“Don’t attack Al Sharpton; show the [voter] fraud,” Sharpton challenged his critics. “Don’t ask why I’m here; show the fraud.”

“The best way to shut me up is to say, ‘Here’s the rampant fraud,’ but in absence of that, you have to try to attack the messenger, because you can’t deal with the validity of the message,” Sharpton said.