Blacks tag voting rights as key issue

Blacks can accept cuts in government spending, but not cuts in voting rights. This is the message black leaders are sending to President Reagan in meetings with administration officials, from conference halls, and from scholarly think tanks.

Clearly, blacks are unhappy with federal budget cuts, which they expect will impose disproportionate sacrifices on minorities. Although they believe budget cuts will hurt them more than whites, blacks say they may be more able to cope because they are accustomed to hardships. Consequently, they warn that spending cuts may spark rioting, as in Britain -- but, they add, any rioting will start in white, not black, communities.

Black leaders are not concentrating their fire on reduced federal spending for welfare programs. Instead, as Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), told Attorney General William French Smith this week, the black community's deepest concern is with threats to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The Joint Center for Political Studies, a Washington think tank, describes the Voting Rights Act as "the most effective civil-rights law to emerge from the activism of the 1960s." The center calls on Congress to renew and strengthen the act and warns that a block of Southerners plans to amend the act into meaninglessness. The issue is before congress now because key provisions of the act are due to expire in August 1982.

Blacks credit the act with bringing about great gains in voter registration -- such as in Mississippi, where the number of blacks registered to vote rose from 6.7 percent of those eligible in 1964 to 67.4 percent in 1976. They see a great deal more to accomplish, however, and say the Voting Rights Act is a key part of further progress.

According to Vernon E. Jordan Jr., president of National Urban League, "The Voting Rights Act is virtually the only protection black and Hispanic citizens have to ensure their right to vote is not hampered. Take it away and we are sure to return to a system of persistent discrimination in which, by a series of overt and covert local measures, blacks are deprived of their voting rights and of representation."

Blacks point out that the act continues to be effective in preventing new attempts to disenfranchise blacks. Since 1965, the US Justice Department has used the act to veto more than 800 attempts by Southern states to change voting rules.

Coretta Scott King, widow of the murdered civil-rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., argues that "the No. 1 priority right now is extending the Voting Rights Act." Speaking in Chicago recently at the annual convention of Operation Push (People United to Save Humanity), the black self-help organization, she said that when her husband began campaigning for civil rights in 1955, there were only some 50 black elected officials nationwide. Largely thanks to the 1965 Voting Rights Act, she says, that number has reached nearly 5,000 today.

PUSH delegates warned about the serious unemployment situation facing blacks and minorities. They cited Census Bureau statistics showing that during the 1960s, the median income of black families rose to 63 percent of that of whites, but over the past 10 years has dropped to 57 percent. This brings blacks nearly back to the pre-civil-rights mov ement figure of 56 percent.

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