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Jackson focusing on South

Sunday’s march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge is more than just a ritual, civil rights leader and Rainbow/Push Coalition founder the Rev. Jesse Jackson said.

“This year is not just a ritual,” Jackson said during a conference call from Chicago. “This year there is a substantive battle to undermine the Voting Rights Act.”

The Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson 40 years ago. In 2007, parts of the amendment expire and Jackson as well as others like Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington office, want to make sure the act’s enforcement powers are not lost.

“Some people are going to argue that the VRA has served its useful purpose and it’s time for it to expire,” Murphy said. “We have established a Web site at www.renewtheVRA.org. We are going to demonstrate the ongoing need for the VRA.”

According to the Web site, Section 5, the federal monitor and observer provisions (Sections 6-9) and the bilingual voting material provision (Section 203) are known as the special provisions of the VRA. These special provisions have a remedial purpose and limited duration.

While the permanent provisions of the VRA do not require legislative reauthorization, the special provisions will expire at the end of the period of years specified by Congress when enacted or renewed.

Jackson said voting irregularities in poor districts across the country but especially in Florida in 2000 and Ohio and Pennsylvania in 2004 demonstrate the need for furthering the enforcement aspects of the act.

“Regan called it the ‘crown jewel of American liberty,'” Murphy said of the act.

Jackson said the newly created democracy in Iraq – where minority voters are protected – is a better system than the U.S. democracy.

“You contrast our democracy with theirs, it is an inferior form of democracy,” he said.

“We’ve had to fight all along the way for enforcement and protections. We’ve not yet reached the voter protection system reached in Iraq.”

Jackson said the Iraqi system allows voters to vote directly for their candidate and bypasses the American Electoral College system.

“In Iraq you have the constitutional right to vote,” he said. “Here we only have the state’s right to vote. In our constitution there are 50 unequal state elections. The richer counties have better machinery the poorer counties have poorer machinery ”

Jackson said the Rainbow/Push Coalition would start a petition this weekend in Alabama attempting to get a million signatures before the 40th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act in August.

“We’re going to initiate this weekend a petition drive for a million petitioners to support extending the voting rights act with enforcement powers,” he said.

Jackson also attacked what he called the south’s largest growing industry, private/public jail complexes like the one being built in Perry County.

“Crime has gone down but jail industrial complexes have gone up,” Jackson said. “This is quite sinister.”

He went on to criticize the overcharging of inmates for telephone calls as well as selling them out for cheap labor.

“There are 55 jobs you can’t do once you come out of jail including be a barber,” Jackson said. “The incentive is not to stay out and become fully employed. The incentive is to go back.”

Michael Blain of the Drug Policy Alliance compared Alabama’s correctional budget to education and said Alabama could parole more non-violent offenders.

“Alabama has just gotten very comfortable saying there is no one left to parole,” he said. “Alabama is just so far behind the curve. The prison population has increased by 600 percent over the last 20 years but the general population has grown by just 28 percent.”

Both Jackson and Blain were critical of a system that does not allow felons to vote after they have served their time but Jackson was harshest on a system in which prison officials make their profit at the expense of prisoners.

“No one has the right to build an industry on the backs of the poorest,” he said.

Jackson added that the loss of textile and other industries to other countries have forced local officials to accept facilities like the prisons just to provide some type of jobs.

“There are too many – whether they are white or black – who have given up the battle to stop the exporting of those (jobs). Those are a huge step backwards,” he said.