WASHINGTON (November 5, 2012) – Attorneys from two prominent civil rights organizations spoke about current threats and the history of struggle in the African-American voting rights movement during the Gwendolyn S. and Colbert I. King Endowed Chair in Public Policy lecture series on Wednesday, Oct. 24.
The 2012-2013 series is titled “Civic equality in the 21st Century: the Political Process, Education, Economic Power, and Individual Rights.” Former President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Elaine R. Jones is facilitating the King lecture series this year.
Barbara R. Arnwine, president and executive director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, joined Jones for the first presentation titled “State Restrictions on the Right to Vote and the Struggles to Ensure an Inclusive Electorate.” Both Jones and Arnwine will return for a post-election, follow-up discussion on Nov. 14. The spring seminars will address the prison system, education, individual rights and coalition building.
Established in 2008 with the King’s $1 million donation to the University, the chair is intended to encourage highly accomplished individuals to come to Howard to share their experiences with current students. The Kings, who are both Howard alumni, inaugurated the chair to reflect their years in public service and the media.
Jones traced the battles over African-American voting rights from before the Civil War through the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which she described as the “crown jewel” of the movement. Jones described poll taxes and literacy tests from the 1880s and 1890s. Sample questions were: Spell “backward” forward or Print the word “vote” upside down.
Jones also told the stories of many Americans who died in the struggle to register African-American voters. Her list included Medgar Evers, the NAACP field secretary who was shot dead after pulling into his driveway. Others were less well-known activists, such as Lamar Smith, a World War I veteran who was shot and killed in broad daylight in 1955 on the courthouse lawn in Brookhaven, Miss.
“These weren’t people who were trained to be what they became, but they made changes that rocked the nation,” Jones said. “These are just a few of the people who died… There are so many more.”
Following Jones’ lecture, Barbara Arnwine focused on current national efforts to limit African-American voting. She said African Americans and other racial minorities are increasingly turning out to vote. In 2008, she said 2 million more African-Americans voted than in the previous election, 2 million more Latinos, and 600,000 more Asian-Americans.
“African-American women voted more than any other group and African-American youth, ages 18 to 30, was the largest turnout group of the youth vote,” Arnwine said. “We take pride in these numbers.”
Arnwine cited voter ID laws, unfairly purging voter registration rolls, misleading billboard advertising, and poll challenges, and cutting the number of early voting days as contemporary ways that are being deployed to limit African-American turnout. She said she was also worried about long lines at polling places.
“They started planning the day President Obama was sworn into office; there were meetings organized so it did not happen again,” she said, referring to Obama’s election. “We are living in an era when people have made up their mind that the way you win is in excluding African-American votes, and suppressing or depressing the vote.”
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About Elaine R. Jones
Jones is the fourth president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF). Since its founding in 1940 by Thurgood Marshall, LDF has been fighting for equal rights and justice for people of color, women and the poor. When Jones took the helm of the organization in 1993, she became the first woman to head LDF. Jones, a Howard alumna, earned a degree in Political Science from the College of Arts and Sciences. In recognition of her achievements, Howard awarded her an honorary Doctorate of Law in 1996. She is also the first African-American woman graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law. Her more than four decades as a lawyer have been spent in coalition with others advocating the economic, educational, social justice and political interests of African-Americans. She also played an influential role in increasing the number of African-American federal judges nationwide.
About Barbara R. Arnwine
Barbara R. Arnwine, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law since 1989, is internationally renowned for civil, human and women’s rights. She continues to champion civil rights issues nationally and internationally in the areas of housing, fair lending, community development, employment, voting, education and environmental justice. In addition, she is also engaged in critical matters such immigrant rights, judicial diversity and sentencing and health care disparities. Arnwine’s awards include the National Bar Association’s Gertrude E. Rush Award in 2011 and the Washington D.C. Freedom’s Sisters Award in 2009. In 2011, she received the prestigious Gruber International Justice Prize and in 2008 she was selected as a Rockwood Institute Leadership Fellow.