Two leading figures of the American civil rights movement urged university students Thursday to "make their voices heard" on issues of justice and equality, 50 years after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law.
The Rev. James Lawson and the Rev. C.T. Vivian spoke at Middle Tennessee State University about the challenges that remain a half-century after the landmark legislation was signed in 1965.
"What we're talking about is how you make it possible that your voice is really heard," Vivian told an audience in a packed auditorium, still speaking with the fiery passion he was known for during the civil rights movement. "This is what made the movement; our voice was really heard. But it didn't happen by accident; we made certain it was heard."
Lawson said the movement five decades ago had cohesiveness and strove to speak with one voice. He and Vivian encouraged the students to do likewise.
"The 21st century needs similar campaigns to correct the horrible things that are happening to fellow Americans across our land," said Lawson, who also spoke passionately.
Mia Griggs, a 20-year-old public relations major at MTSU, said it was inspiring "to actually hear them, those who were pivotal in the struggle for voting rights." Griggs, who registered to vote at a booth outside the auditorium, added, "It makes you want to be active. We can all preach it, but who's going to do the actions?"
Vivian and Lawson were friends and confidants of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and led demonstrations that helped make the Voting Rights Act a reality.
Vivian, who staged his first sit-in demonstrations in the 1940s, met King soon after the budding civil rights leader's victory in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. Vivian's assault during a voting rights demonstration in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 spurred support for the voting rights legislation that was signed the following August.
Vivian told The Associated Press in an interview that an ongoing battle by a group of Tennessee college students illustrates that the fight is far from over. The students want a federal court to require the state to accept their school identification cards as valid voter identification.
The out-of-state students at Fisk University and Tennessee State University say in a lawsuit that they can't vote in Tennessee because of voter ID legislation passed in 2011. Tennessee won't accept identification cards from other states, nor will it accept student identification cards from Tennessee colleges and universities.
Vivian, 91, said he's encouraged by their determination, despite the persistent challenges.
"It lets me know that we will eventually overcome," Vivian said. "And that ... the work we've done for this nation is slowly being fulfilled."
Lawson, 86, trained students in nonviolent protest in the early 1960s, including many who became leaders of the movement, such as Diane Nash, Bernard Lafayette, John Lewis and the late James Bevel. Sit-ins by the students he trained led to the successful integration of lunch counters in Nashville, the first of many Southern cities to make that move.
"We are still a society trying to reach the place where we recognize the right of every citizen to vote," said Lawson.
More than two dozen states have passed tougher voting laws over the past several years, adding new requirements on voter ID for instance. In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a key section of the Voting Rights Act, requiring all or parts of 15 states with a history of discrimination in voting to get federal approval before changing the way they hold elections.
Since then, President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats have called for legislation to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, but they have met with resistance in the GOP-led Congress.
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