In 1965, after a hard fought battle for civil rights, African-Americans gained the right to vote. However, 45 years later in 2010, two years after the country elected it’s first Black president, only 10 percent of African-Americans showed up to the polls to cast their ballot.

Despite the low voter turnout in recent elections, many believe their right to vote is under attack once more in the form of legislation recently passed in 19 states around the country requiring voters to show photo identification at the polls.


“We fought and suffered to get the right to vote. People gave their lives, gave up their career, lost their families to give us the right to vote,” said Rev. Al Sharpton at a voting rights rally in Pittsburgh over the weekend. “Here you are 45 years later sitting up here in Pittsburgh, Pa.—nobody’s shooting at you, nobody’s bombing your house, nobody waiting in the bushes of your driveway—just too lazy and ungrateful to protect what others died to give you.”

At the Oct. 6 rally at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture Sharpton chastised the African-American community for not remaining vigilant on voting rights. Despite last week’s ruling halting Pennsylvania’s Voter ID legislation, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is currently being challenged in the Supreme Court.

“Some of us got into the elusion of acceptance. You don’t go up a few yards up the road and celebrate because you got a few yards up the road,” Sharpton said in an interview with the New Pittsburgh Courier following his speech. “If we don’t show up and vote, we’ve cosigned the end of our own rights.”

African-Americans have had to withstand a number of requirements in order to cast their vote since the abolishment of slavery. From the grandfather clause and the poll tax, to several different literacy tests asking questions like “how many bubbles are in a bar of soap,” the voter ID bill is only the most recent iteration of voter suppression.

“We got lax folks and we let the crazy a… tea party take over the House of Representatives and they ushered in the fifth generation of voter suppression in the Voter ID bill,” said Sala Udin, co-director of the August Wilson Center, in a fiery speech to the audience. “They’re going to come up with another generation. Just because the court overturned this generation doesn’t mean they’re not going to come back. Don’t get laxed. We finally got it overturned but it aint over.”

While the August Wilson Center reminded guests at the rally that the center was non-partisan, many, if not most of the speakers promoted the re-election of President Barack Obama in their comments.

“One thing, to me, people sometimes take for granted is they think their vote isn’t worth anything, but if your vote wasn’t worth anything they wouldn’t try to steal it,” said County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. “With 31 days to go, we need to make sure we do everything we can. We need to educate voters. We’re going to re-elect President Obama. We’re going to win.”

In addition to the event’s pro-Obama feel, the rally, which was hosted by the Pittsburgh Chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute in partnership with the United Steelworkers, The NAACP and the Communication Workers of America, was also pro-labor union. Other speakers included Leo Gerard, international USW president; local USW representative Dewitt Walton; Andy Miller, CWA western region vice president; Don Jones of the liberal super-PAC Patriot Majority; Vic Walczak, legal director American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania; and hip-hop artist and activist Jasiri X; and Sylvia Wilson, president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of APRI, who served as mistress of ceremonies.

Wilson and Walton who serves as vice president of the Pittsburgh Chapter of APRI have been leading voter education efforts locally. APRI, which is an organization for Black trade unionists dedicated to racial equality and economic justice, has made 66,000 phones calls to African-Americans and registered 1,800 voters.

“Voter suppression and the efforts to deny our community threatens our very existence,” Walton said. “It is our responsibility to go out at every turn until we repeal this legislation.”

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