Speaker: Defend the right to vote

'Get everybody to the polls,' NAACP convention is told

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

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With barely two weeks until Election Day, a prominent civil rights lawyer urged black people in Vancouver to unleash the power of their influence by voting -- and by making sure their entire community votes.

"We are under attack," Carol D. Powell Lexing told a tristate conference of the NAACP -- the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People -- during her keynote address at the Hilton Vancouver Washington on Saturday night. "I don't know whether it is the resurrection of Jim Crow, but being what we call the dirty South, it just seems like this is a never-ending saga."

Over the past two years, Lexing said, 25 state laws and two executive actions have successfully limited the power of people to vote. Those are by and large minority people, Lexing said, and the tools being used to limit their influence are everything from photo-identification requirements at the polls to curtailment of early voting on weekends.

Lexing called those laws "schemes and strategies to limit your power" -- but she also noted some victories against those restrictions. The most notable one, she said, is in swing state Ohio, which tried to ban weekend voting for all but members of the military. A lower court overturned the law, the Ohio Secretary of State requested that the U.S. Supreme Court take the case, and that final arbiter of justice rendered a one-sentence verdict Oct. 16: "Your request is hereby denied."

That line drew applause and whoops from the audience. Lexing welcomed their enthusiasm, but cautioned them not to stop there. "We have to go out there and instruct the community about the power that lies within us," she said. "We have to get everybody to the polls."

Lexing also drew applause as she described her own efforts to fight racism in her home state. She represented the "Jena Six," a group of black high school students who were accused of attempted murder after an assault amid a background of ongoing racial tensions and incidents in Jena, La.; their handling by the criminal justice system has been criticized as discriminatory and racist, with the attempted second-degree murder charges eventually reduced to simple battery.

Lexing said the Jena Six are by and large college students or working now -- "all very productive young men in society," she said.

City Councilman Jack Burkman welcomed the NAACP convention to Vancouver by describing some of the city's best attractions, then launched into a similar sermon about persistent racism and voting. He pointed out that an anti-Obama protest in Camas took the form of an empty chair hanged from a tree -- which many saw as recalling the lynchings of the Jim Crow South.

"We like to think all our racial, bias, power issues are behind us now," Burkman said. "But that publicly, visibly brought those issues back to the forefront."

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, perhaps the premier civil rights organization in the nation, was formed in 1909; the Vancouver chapter was founded in 1945. To learn more, visit http://naacpvanc.org.

The tristate conference -- bringing together NAACP members from Washington, Oregon and Alaska -- included workshops and talks on topics like equity in health and education; voting rights and political engagement; and environmental and climate justice. The theme: "Your Power, Your Decision, Your Vote."

According to the 2010 Census, the city of Vancouver has 161,791 residents, and 4,763 (2.9 percent) of them are black.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; http://twitter.com/col_nonprofits; scott.hewitt@columbian.com.