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Panel fears backsliding on voting rights

Activists and experts tout extensions to the Voting Rights Act to a gathering of black journalists in Atlanta.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Media Critic
Published August 6, 2005

ATLANTA - Looking around the cramped confines of a small meeting room in the bowels of the Hyatt Regency hotel, the Rev. Jesse Jackson had pointed words ready for his hosts, the National Association of Black Journalists.

"To put this discussion in the corner of a basement is ... threatening to our survival," said Jackson, speaking on a panel Friday during the NABJ's national convention.

The panel focused on the 2007 expiration of key parts of the Voting Rights Act.

"Out of the Voting Rights Act, we got affirmative action (which led) ... to your jobs," the civil rights leader said, drawing a murmur of agreement from dozens of black journalists packed into the room. "To put your own lifeline in the basement of your consciousness ... is not a good thing."

Jackson joined a panel of activists and experts that included comic Dick Gregory, Service Employees International Union president Andy Stern and U.S. Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala.

They hoped to face thousands of black journalists gathered in Atlanta for the group's 30th anniversary convention. The goal: tout a "Keep the Vote Alive" rally taking place in Atlanta today that is expected to draw 10,000 supporters advocating congressional action to extend the act's provisions.

But after watching notables such as former President Bill Clinton and the Rev. T.D. Jakes address thousands of NABJ members in ballroom-sized meeting halls, Jackson and his panel moved to their smaller space with an incisive message:

Black journalists must do more to spread the word.

"It's been difficult to get the word out about the voting rights story, because I've had to go through a whole range of culturally insensitive (news executives) who never had to fight for the right to vote," Jackson said. "We were denied the right to vote for 346 years ... and a group of enlightened black journalists have just marginalized this discussion."

A representative of the company that manages the convention said Jackson's panel was moved for logistical reasons and that the move was not a reflection of NABJ's opinion on the subject. Contrary to the warnings featured in many e-mails bouncing around the Internet, expiration of the Voting Rights Act provisions will not end the ability of black citizens to vote - a right gained in 1965, when then-President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill granting such access to all Americans.

What will end: A provision requiring states with a history of racial discrimination to receive federal approval before changing vote laws. Other expiring provisions require voting materials to be available in languages beside English and allow federal monitors to observe areas where allegations of voting improprieties have surfaced.

Some conservative groups have said the expiring provisions don't need extension, because Southern states no longer enforce Jim Crow laws aimed at keeping racial minorities from voting.

But activists are pressing Congress to strengthen the act's protective measures, pointing to problems with counting ballots in the 2000 presidential election as evidence that all Americans' votes are not secure.

"I'm coming to the (Keep The Vote Alive) march because white folks didn't lie to us: They said we all could vote," Gregory said. "But they didn't say they would count them. We're coming back this time to get them all counted."

Pleas for press coverage are common at the NABJ convention, which will end Sunday after appearances by newsmakers such as Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean and Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman, among others.

But when asked whether the kind of coverage they expect might cause black journalists to lose objectivity, participants on the voting rights panel said they just want a fair discussion of the issue in the press.

"Don't let objectivity turn into an excuse to not report the facts," Davis said. "In the past, the barriers to voting were explicit. Now the barriers are real, but they're not labeled so obviously. That's where black journalists can make a difference."

[Last modified August 6, 2005, 01:43:02]

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