Mark Humphrey/AP
The Revs. C.T. Vivian (l.) and James Lawson take part in a discussion at Middle Tennessee State University about the Voting Rights Act Thursday in Murfreesboro. The two legends of the civil rights movement say they're encouraged by efforts to maintain equality at the polls amid what they see as attempts to thwart it.

Beyond Black Lives Matter, new generation of activists rises in Tennessee

Two legends of the civil rights era say new activists, inspired by Black Lives Matter, are tackling new challenges to voting rights, starting with a Tennessee ID law.

Fifty years after the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act, a whole new generation of voting rights activists may be emerging.

Black Lives Matter has gained attention for revitalizing black activism in America on the issue of police and legal reform. But two legends of the civil rights movement suggested Thursday that the fight for minority voting rights continues – and is gaining momentum, as well.

The Revs. James Lawson and C.T. Vivian went to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro to support students in their quest to change the state's voter identification laws. Both men, Tennesseans and friends of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., worked for decades to bring about the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Now, with the United States Supreme Court in 2013 striking down key provisions of the act and states passing voter ID laws that critics say infringe on minorities’ ability to vote, the time is ripe for fresh activism, the men told the Associated Press.

And they see it in the students. “It lets me know that we will eventually overcome,” said Mr. Vivian. “And that … the work we’ve done for this nation is slowly being fulfilled.”

The issue in Tennessee is that the state won’t accept identification cards from out of state, nor will it accept student identification cards from Tennessee colleges and universities. A group of out-of-state students – who have neither form of identification – has sued the state.

More broadly, 17 states have passed laws requiring voters to present a form of photo identification. Proponents say the goal is to prevent voter fraud. But the laws have been driven by Republican state legislatures, and critics say they impact poor and minority voters most, since they are the most likely to not have an acceptable form of ID. They are also core Democratic constituencies.

Data suggest that voter fraud is exceedingly rare.

In 2013, the Supreme Court threw out Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a section that required all or parts of 15 states with a history of discrimination in voting to get federal approval before changing the way they hold elections. Chief Justice John Roberts said the provision was outdated.

Vivian told AP  “it’s a shame” that such battles over voting rights are still being fought. He has been active in civil rights since the 1940s and was assaulted in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

While contemporary voting rights activists are facing new challenges, they “definitely draw a lot of their inspiration” from the 1950s and 1960s, says John Sherman, a staff attorney for the Fair Elections Legal Network (FELN), which filed the lawsuit in March on behalf of the Nashville Student Organizing Committee.

He noted one March protest in the statehouse. When a legislative committee rejected a motion to include student IDs on the list of approved voter IDs, the students filling the room stood up and started singing the iconic civil rights song “Can’t Turn Me ’Round.”

But today’s activists also reflect past generations in other, less glamorous ways, says Shawn Alexander, director of the Langston Hughes Center at the University of Kansas.

“It’s a passing of the torch on some levels, but it’s also people organizing in the manner they’ve always organized,” says Dr. Alexander.

That begins with litigation – the kind of litigation that the students in Tennessee are now engaged in.

“The thing people forget with the civil rights movement is each direct action campaign comes out of litigation behind it,” he says.

As early as 1960, Alexander says, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other civil rights organizations had been running local get-out-the-vote campaigns. 

“[They] were working at the local level trying to take [people] to polls, being denied, and then taking [the state] to litigation,” he adds.

“People forget the long struggle that took place,” he says. “They jump straight to Selma.”

The issue today is not as stark. But activists call it injustice. Of the states that have passed strict voter ID laws, seven allow college or university ID cards, according to Mr. Sherman of FELN. Although Tennessee does not allow students to use their ID cards, though it does allow faculty and staff to do so.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, other movements are finding a voice, says Justin Hansford, a professor at the St. Louis University School of Law.

“Civil rights victories often are won first in the streets, then in the courts,” he writes in an e-mail. “Black Lives Matter has reinvigorated the youth and shown that their passion can lead to change, so hopefully a burgeoning voting rights movement can also gain steam.”

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