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SPLC demands voting rights protections at March on Washington commemoration

They came from Starkville and Indianola, from New Orleans, Jackson and Montgomery, a group of heroes of their Deep South communities standing together at the Lincoln Memorial this past weekend to pledge commitment to a dream that, in a nation still riven by racial inequality, remains unfulfilled.

Gardeners and city council members, poets and bus drivers, student leaders, schoolteachers and men and women who emerged from prison cells into the light of social justice activism were assembled by the Southern Poverty Law Center – the storied organization forged from the promise of the Civil Rights Movement – to join the commemoration of the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech 60 years ago today.

The event’s primary goal was to advocate for legislation that will strengthen the foundations of U.S. democracy. Against the backdrop of these pressing issues, Margaret Huang, the SPLC’s president and CEO, delivered a powerful address, calling for unity, understanding and concrete steps toward a more equitable and just society.

Huang was among the civil rights leaders who took the stage on Aug. 26 from the same steps where King addressed the crowd decades earlier. In a time of uncertainty, she said, the call for legislative action to protect and preserve U.S. democracy resounds more strongly than ever.

She spoke blisteringly of the central role that right-wing lawmakers across the Deep South are playing today in assaults on tools to fight racial discrimination.

But, she said, the SPLC is using every tool at its disposal, including legal representation in court, legislative advocacy and support for grassroots communities that are pushing back against racial injustice, particularly in the Deep South, where the organization focuses its work.

In the video: Margaret Huang, the president and CEO of the SPLC, delivered an address, calling for legislative measures to protect voting rights before Saturday’s march in Washington.

As a case in point, Huang cited the SPLC’s historic June 8 voting rights victory in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Allen v. Milligan, which blocked Alabama’s efforts to dilute Black voting power. The SPLC, along with the League of Women Voters and Stand-Up Mobile, filed an amicus brief in support of the case.

“It’s hard to believe that 60 years ago, hundreds of thousands of people gathered on these same grounds and changed the course of history,” she said. “People from all walks of life who refused to stay silent against injustice, who refused to wait for freedom any longer, who refused to accept any more hollow excuses from elected leaders about their inaction on civil rights. Because of those activists’ courage, laws changed. Doors that had been shut for centuries began to open. And new, powerful tools emerged to fight racial discrimination.”

‘Not on our watch’

But now, she said, those hard-won victories – rights that were presumed to be unassailable – are being taken away.

“Down in the Deep South, where SPLC calls home, right-wing lawmakers have been plotting and preparing this siege for years – especially against our right to vote,” she said. “After the U.S. Supreme Court eviscerated the heart of the Voting Rights Act in a case out of Alabama in 2013, hundreds, if not thousands, of anti-voter bills across the country have been proposed, passed and adopted into law.”

Lawmakers, she said, have been clawing away at fair representation and the ability of Black, Brown and Indigenous communities to elect candidates from their own communities who will represent their interests.

“As they try to dismantle our democracy bit by bit, state and local officials in the South and beyond are denying people’s bodily autonomy,” she said. “They’re criminalizing the unhoused. They’re attacking LGBTQ+ people. They’re blocking communities from accessing safe air and drinking water. And they’re rewriting history and erasing the stories, experiences and contributions of Black people.

“These campaigns against our ballots, our bodies, our schoolbooks – they are all connected,” she said. “When our right to vote falls, all other civil and human rights can fall too. But we’re here today to say, ‘No. Not on our watch!’”

On the day before the Aug. 26 commemoration, Huang joined other civil rights leaders in a meeting at the U.S. Department of Justice, where they addressed the state of civil rights in the U.S.

But on the same day that civil rights leaders and community activists at the march called for an end to violence against Black and Brown people, a young white man carrying an AR-style rifle and a handgun with swastikas on it walked into a discount store in Jacksonville, Florida, where he shot and killed three Black people in what police say was a racially motivated attack.

“Today’s attack in Jacksonville shows how the violent legacy of white supremacy lives on in our nation,” the SPLC said in a statement released on social media the day of the Aug. 26 shooting. “The SPLC will continue to expose hate and extremism whenever and wherever it exists – and support Black communities who too often bear the burden of violent attacks.”

‘About basic rights for people’

In a Washington where sweltering heat radiated off the pavement as it did in 1963, when more than 250,000 people converged in what is still considered the greatest gathering for civil rights and economic justice in U.S. history, the SPLC delegation did more than march. Over three long days packed with meetings, seminars and discussions, local advocates strategized alongside the organization’s top leadership, drawing strength to return to their communities so they could continue the push for social justice, civil rights and fairness at the ballot box.

“This is about basic rights for people,” said Ivory Cancer, 36, who traveled from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to join the SPLC.

Cancer, who celebrated her seventh wedding anniversary with her wife on Aug. 27, is seeking to create an online directory of health care and social services for the LGBTQ+ community where she lives. She was moved to do so after a young gay friend of hers took his own life.

At the march, Cancer spoke of the critical link between the right to vote and the freedom to live the life you wish.

“People have been doing this long before me, and people will be doing it long after I’m gone,” Cancer said of the social justice push at the heart of the march. “And so, if I can do my part to contribute to that change and that consistent progress, for people to just have a place, then it will be worth it.”

Cancer was one of 45 fellows of the SPLC’s Advocacy Institute who were part of the large and diverse SPLC delegation led by Huang.

Later, Huang led the SPLC delegation in the half-mile march from the 101-year-old Lincoln Memorial to the 12-year-old memorial to King, which rises from the shores of Washington’s Tidal Basin.

Along the way, the group, wearing matching purple T-shirts, chanted, “Who are we? SPLC!”

Margaret Huang amid SPLC delegation

SPLC President and CEO Margaret Huang leads the organization’s delegation on a half-mile march during the March on Washington anniversary event.

Eric Lee
Overview of March on Washington

“Who are we? SPLC!” chanted the organization’s delegation, clad in purple T-shirts.

Eric Lee
Marchers near Washington Monument's Reflecting Pool in Washington D.C.

March on Washington event attendees gather near the Washington Monument’s Reflecting Pool.

Eric Lee
The Rev. Al Sharpton

The Rev. Al Sharpton speaks during the March on Washington anniversary event.

Eric Lee
People carry banner that reads: Let my people vote!

At the March on Washington anniversary event, attendees called on legislators to protect and preserve U.S. democracy.

Eric Lee

‘The needs of the people’

Among the group was Marvin Jones, 52, from the Mississippi Delta town of Belzoni. A former school administrator and city alderman, Jones is seeking to bolster urgent medical care options in the region, where he says the nearest hospital is 40 minutes away.

Standing with the Reflecting Pool behind him as the crowd thickened at the march, Jones said being there was “like a light being turned on in a dark room.”

“Knowing that I got other people across the country willing to, you know, stick their necks out to help with these causes, it’s going to send me home with a stronger fire,” Jones said.

Samesa Hoskin, 27, is a poet, gardener, artist and environmental activist in Indianola, also in the Delta region of northwest Mississippi. Twice a month she gathers people of all ages at a community garden in the heart of her town to plant flowers and vegetables, and to make art together. Her work and her passion are centered on addressing environmental disparities she says are driven by deep societal inequities.

“I believe what we’re marching about has everything to do with environmental classism,” Hoskin said. “If we can’t elect the people to represent us, the needs of the people, even for something so basic as to live in a healthy environment, well, that gets left behind.”

Standing not far from Hoskin was Nick Carroll, 25, a young white man who traveled an unlikely path to his fellowship with the Advocacy Institute – a path that, at a time in the U.S. when the battles for justice sometimes seem increasingly elusive, offers reason for the hope that brought the SPLC delegation to the march.

A reporter at a local newspaper in Starkville, Mississippi, Carroll said he grew up in a deeply conservative family in Alabama. He voted for Donald Trump for president in 2016. But at college, he became best friends with a man who was Black and gay. Carroll said the experience opened his world.

“It helped me realize that people that are different from me are not always scary,” Carroll said.

“I didn’t have the education to know what was actually better for the people of America and better for the people around me,” Carroll said. “I realized the policies that I believed in directly hurt the people that I cared about, and I decided I didn’t want to be affiliated with anything close to that anymore.”

Photo at top: At the March on Washington 60th anniversary event, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s delegation included fellows of the organization’s Advocacy Institute. (Credit: Eric Lee)