By David Giambusso
Amid political broadsides and calls for congressional action in response to the recent Supreme Court decision striking down a crucial section of the Voting Rights Act, it was a local community activist who brought the crowd to its feet during a rally today in Newark.
"These are not mere pieces of legislation, these are covenants paid for in blood," Lawrence Hamm, chairman of the People's Organization for Progress, told about 200 people today during a rally at Newark's St. James A.M.E. Church protesting the court's decision.
Hamm, 59, reminded the crowd that racial segregation and disenfranchisement were not consigned to the South and remain fresh in the minds of many in Newark.
"Don't let anyone tell you that Jim Crow was only in the South," Hamm said. "Jim Crow was right here in Newark, New Jersey."
Hamm said downtown movie theaters used to have segregated seating and a White Castle on Elizabeth Avenue refused to hire blacks.
"This was in our lifetime," Hamm said, sparking an ovation from the crowd. "So anybody who thinks they can take away what we fought for in this lifetime, they have been misled."
Hamm was among some of the state's leading Democrats, including gubernatorial candidate Sen. Barbara Buono, Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-10th Dist.); and U.S. Senate candidates Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th Dist.) and Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver (D-Essex) to address the rally.
All decried the high court's 5-4 decision last month that freed nine mostly southern states to change their election laws without advance federal approval. The ruling effectively gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
At the same time, however, the speakers said the ruling was an opportunity to extend so-called pre-clearance requirements to all states that have engaged in practices many feel are designed to disenfranchise poor and minority voters.
"I think this decision has a lot to do with the election of a black president," Payne said. "They're trying to figure out a way that this can never happen again."
Pallone said districts in many northern states should receive federal oversight.
"There are distticts in the north and other parts of the country that need pre-clearance," he said. "We've got to be looking out for people all over the country."
Oliver too called for more oversight and warned against losing ground in the civil rights battle.
"We've progressed and walked the journey too long and we are not going back," she said.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker was not present at the rally, nor was Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th Dist). Both are running in the special August primary for U.S. Senate along with Oliver and Pallone.
Buono, who is battling Gov. Chris Christie in the November gubernatorial election, called out her opponent for being mum on the Supreme Court decision.
"If this governor chooses to be silent, it's his prerogative," Buono said. "But we will not let this stand."