Holder Speaks At Voting Rights Rally

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U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder joins the NAACP South Carolina State Conference for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day rally, where he spoke about voting rights. The Justice Department recently struck down South Carolina's law that would have required voters to show photo identification before casting a ballot.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

This time every year, people gather at the state capital in Columbia, South Carolina, for a rally to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. At this year's event, sponsored by the NAACP, Attorney General Eric Holder was among them. in his speech, Holder focused on one of Dr. King's greatest accomplishments, helping to pass the Voting Rights Act and a current effort in South Carolina to pass a voter identification law. NPR's Kathy Lohr was at today's rally.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: It was overcast and a bit chilly in this part of the South as hundreds gathered to sing, pray and celebrate.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) There is no pain Jesus...

LOHR: Civil rights groups are upset about laws that require voters to show a photo ID before casting a ballot. William Barber with the North Carolina NAACP praised the Justice Department for rejecting such a law in South Carolina last year.

REVEREND WILLIAM BARBER: In South Carolina, we got to always tell them no first, and then hell no second. And the next time they try to take my right to vote, Mr. Holder, I want you to able to tell them, hell no, you ain't going to take his right to vote.

LOHR: Those who oppose voter ID law say the target minorities, the poor and the elderly. They liken it to the infamous poll tax of another era. Holder called the right to vote the lifeblood of our democracy and said history is on the side of encouraging people to vote.

ERIC HOLDER: We must ensure that this continues, and this is my pledge to you today.

LOHR: Tuesday, Georgia and Indiana have won court battles and are now enforcing their voter ID laws. At least half a dozen other states are trying to get them approved. State officials say the laws prevent voter fraud. But Holder says creating barriers to voting is not the answer.

HOLDER: We need, and the American people deserve, election systems that are free from discrimination, free from partisan influence and free from fraud. And we must do everything within our power to make certain that these systems are more, not less, accessible to the citizens of this country.

LOHR: The attorney general says he's committed to upholding the 1965 Voting Rights law and told the crowd that the Justice Department had opened 100 new investigations into possible discrimination in the last fiscal year.

Holder says he is also committed to enforcing the requirement that states found guilty of discrimination in the past, must get federal approval for any changes to their current voting laws. States continue to challenge that provision as out of date. But Holder said discrimination still remains all too common, and Eric Pinkett(ph) of Greenwood, South Carolina, agrees with that assessment.

ERIC PINKETT: And we're not just talking about race. We're talking about people, OK? Many senior citizens, elderly folks just don't have the necessary means.

LOHR: Civil rights groups say there is no better way to commemorate the King holiday than by defending the voting rights he and others fought to win. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina.

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