Speaking from the pulpit of the Hill District's Wesley Center African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, NAACP leader Benjamin Jealous talked Sunday of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Part of that, said Mr. Jealous, who is president and CEO of the civil rights group, means doing what's right for the community as well as the individual. And with the national elections just eight weeks away, there is no room for complacency.
Growing unease over Pennsylvania's new voter ID law must be addressed by the black community, he continued, adding that "this is not a Republican thing, this is an extremist thing."
In earlier remarks to journalists, he called the legislation a "bald-faced" attempt to deny minority voters access to the polls, saying: "If a law is not intended to solve a problem, it is intended to be a problem."
"We have seen more states pass more laws, pushing more voters out of the ballot box in the past year than we've seen in the 100 years before it. This is the biggest legislative season for voter suppression in a century.
"When you note that less than 2 percent of the delegates [at the recent GOP convention] were black, the reality is that in this very particular moment in history, it... makes you yearn for the likes of John Heinz and Jack Kemp and Republicans who actually had a civil rights agenda," Mr. Jealous said, "people who were able to articulate in a way that make people feel there was a space for all of us in the Grand Old Party."
He later noted that Republican governors in Michigan and Virginia did not support similar voter ID legislation this year.
Mr. Jealous was joined Sunday by other community leaders, including Fred Redmond, vice president of the United Steelworkers International and a member of the AFL-CIO executive council.
The latter cited a history of cooperation between the labor and civil rights movements: "We were partners in 1965 as we saw the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and we're partners today to make sure that not only [do] people have the right to vote, but that all votes are counted."
During a spirited church service, presided over by the Rev. Marsha Lambria, Mr. Jealous repeated a point made to the media: that he believes in times of increased minority voter turnout, there is, historically, a push-back.
"You saw it following 2008, when we had the largest, diverse, presidential electorate, ever; the entire country saw the same thing that day.
"But the country responded in two ways. The first said, 'Oh, yes, the future is here.' Some of us, unfortunately, said, 'Oh, no, this can never happen again.'
"And those who said 'Oh, no, this can never happen again' went right into passing voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, restrictions on same-day registration, on voter registration."
The voter ID issue, he said, is a poll tax. Although obtaining the necessary photo identification is, in theory, free to Pennsylvanians, securing copies of documents could have a cost. Obtaining Social Security cards and "raised-seal" birth certificates might require fees. And in some cases, time off from work or transportation to a PennDOT center also involves a cost.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union website, there have been reports of patrons mistakenly charged $13.50 for the "free" ID card.
Regardless, Mr. Jealous said, the time and expense to get the card will be worth it.
"All of us have sort of asked ourselves, 'What would I have done if I were alive during slavery? What would I have done if I were alive during Jim Crow?' And really, what we should be asking ourselves is 'What am I doing right now, when they are putting in the first restrictions on voting in my lifetime?' "
Mr. Jealous' wife, Lia Epperson, grew up in Pittsburgh and is an associate professor at American University's Washington College of Law.
In his remarks to the congregation, Mr. Jealous mentioned his 96-year-old grandmother, whose grandfather was born a slave.
"She is fortunate to have lived long enough to have seen the end of the poll tax but [also] the return of the poll tax. What she said to me, under no uncertain terms, was that in the days of the poll tax ... you pay it.
"Because the only way to get somebody in office who will get rid of the poll tax is to vote."
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