Civil rights leaders yesterday called for a national mobilization of African Americans and progressive allies to defend voting rights, and they denounced irregularities in the presidential election as punishment for "voting while black."
A moot-court classroom at Howard University Law School was packed with nearly 300 people, who said they were outraged both at the U.S. Supreme Court decision that "selected" George W. Bush and at the rejection of hundreds of thousands of ballots in Florida and elsewhere because of machine malfunctions and other problems. They mocked Bush as the "president-select."
What to do about it was the question on the table at the gathering billed as a National Emergency Summit on Voting Rights Denial.
"We need to transfer our anger into action," said Martin Luther King III, head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The meeting was convened by the Rev. Walter Fauntroy and his National Black Leadership Roundtable. Those in attendance represented African American business, labor, civic, religious and senior citizen groups.
Several speakers sketched aspects of the election they said are the source of bitterness for African Americans across the country.
Ronald Walters, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, said blacks turned out to vote in unprecedented numbers.
At the same time, said Rep. Earl F. Hilliard (D-Ala.), nearly two-thirds of the votes that were not counted were cast by minorities. An analysis by The Washington Post showed that poor precincts, where many minorities live, were more likely to have old and faulty voting equipment that rejected more votes.
Angela Chiccolo, assistant general counsel to the NAACP, said complaints about voting irregularities began reaching the organization's Baltimore headquarters early on Election Day.
Speakers voiced anger that race was being omitted from post-election analyses and said evidence showed a racial aspect to the problems. They criticized what they called a tone of conciliation between Democrats and Republicans, and they singled out Vice President Gore for urging members of the Congressional Black Caucus to "reach across party lines."
"The posture I would urge is no appeasement," Walters said.
A spirited game of one-upmanship began to see who could characterize the election most accurately. "It has involved the theft of democracy itself," Walters said.
No, said radio activist Joe Madison, who conceived of the gathering with Fauntroy. The election wasn't stolen, "it was robbed," he said, since something can be stolen without the victim knowing it, while a robbery is committed before the victim's eyes.
"It was worse than that," said Al Sharpton. "What is worse than a robbery is to catch the robber, go to court and the court rules there was no robbery."
Bush's selections for his Cabinet, despite including women, blacks and Latinos, show that diversity alone is not the answer, the organizers said. "Democrats and Republicans have sold us diversity when we should be looking for progressive ideology," Walters said.
Turning to the question of how to respond to the election and its aftermath, the Roundtable announced a program of "mobilize, educate, litigate, legislate." As a first step, the group applauded hearings scheduled by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for Jan. 11 and 12 in Tallahassee to investigate voting irregularities.
The group endorsed a huge voter registration drive for Jan. 15. "That would be a present to Martin Luther King Jr." on what would have been King's 72nd birthday, his son said.
Organizers also urged everyone to march in protest the following Saturday, Jan. 20, Inauguration Day. Jesse Jackson plans a march in Tallahassee, while Sharpton will hold a rally in Stanton Park on Capitol Hill and lead a march to the Supreme Court for a "Shadow Inauguration." Participants will be sworn in at the same hour as Bush, promising to defend voting rights.
"If you can't march in Washington or Tallahassee, march around your house," Sharpton said.
In coming months, Fauntroy said, lawsuits are planned, based on evidence of voting irregularities. He held out hope that Congress will pass an update of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to prevent a repeat of Election 2000.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company