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Sharpton: Vigilance required on voter rights issues

| Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, 11:56 p.m.

Minorities and union leaders must remain vigilant about protecting voters' rights even though a controversial voter identification law has been delayed, the Rev. Al Sharpton said at a Downtown rally Saturday.

The civil rights leader spoke to about 150 people at the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture. The event had been planned by union members as a rally to oppose the measure that would have required voters to present government-issued identification.

"This a critical time if ever there was one," Sharpton said. "It is no coincidence to me that we have seen a series of events that are meant to try to disenfranchise and in many ways erase what civil rights achieved 40 and 50 years ago."

After reciting several violent attacks of the Civil Rights era, Sharpton admonished those in the audience to vote: "Here you are 45 years later, sitting up here in Pittsburgh, Pa., nobody is shooting at you. Nobody is bombing your house. Nobody is waiting in the bushes in your driveway. Just too lazy and ungrateful to protect what others died to give you."

It's time to revive the spirit of self-sacrifice, Sharpton said.

"We've got to organize like we've never organized before," he said. "Every time we stood up we won. If you stand up, we win; if you sit down, you lose because you wouldn't stand up."

The rally was organized by the United Steelworkers, the Communication Workers of America and the Pittsburgh chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a nonprofit representing black trade unionists.

Election-protection volunteers will fan out to 200 polling places in minority areas across Western Pennsylvania for the Nov. 6 election to make sure that registered voters are allowed to cast a ballot, said Dewitt Walton, vice president and program director for the Randolph Institute's chapter. The volunteers will report into a command center with lawyers who can handle voting disputes if they arise, he said.

"The issue goes far beyond voter ID," Walton said. "It's truly an effort at voter suppression and an attempt to disenfranchise people's right to cast a ballot."

A Commonwealth Court judge earlier this month kept part of the voter ID law intact, ruling the state can ask for photo ID in the General Election, but people without it still can vote. The November election will be similar to the "soft rollout" used in the April primary when voter ID was optional.

"When you won that decision in Pennsylvania this week, you struck a blow for freedom all over the country," Sharpton said.

Khari Mosley, civic engagement director for the Randolph Institute, said the fear is that some voters still could be intimidated into not voting if they do not understand the law.

"Essentially, we are trying to raise awareness," he said. "The concern is the potential that it could happen."

Sharpton has been, at times, a controversial figure, often as a vocal advocate for blacks killed or hurt in disputes with law enforcement.

Before coming to Pittsburgh, Sharpton appeared at his Harlem headquarters Saturday with the mother of a National Guardsman shot to death Thursday by a New York City police officer.

Andrew Conte is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7835 or andrewconte@tribweb.com.

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