The Rev. Al Sharpton held court, surrounded by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and other high-profile leaders, and rallied activists packed in a conference room at the National Action Network (NAN) convention on Wednesday.
“The battle for civil rights has never been more important than it is now,” said Sharpton, who founded NAN in 1991. “We’re in a crisis from a president who has jeopardized civil rights, criminal justice reform and voting rights.”
NAN’s three-day convention opened Wednesday with that battle cry. This year’s gathering focuses on the current state of the civil rights movement since the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years ago.
Criminal justice reform has reversed under the Trump administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for example, has taken steps to restart the racially biased war on drugs that led to the mass incarceration of Black men. The criminal justice system warehoused African-Americans in prison for drug offenses 10 times more than Whites, even though Blacks and Whites were using drugs at roughly the same rate. Blacks also received disproportionately longer prison sentences for minor drug offenses. In preparation for the new war on drugs, the Trump administration revoked an Obama directive to phasing out private prisons.
“We are proud to hold down Obama’s achievements,” Sharpton stated.
Sharpton started a “run Eric, run,” chant with the audience, joking that he’s only repeating what he heard other people say about the possibility of Holder running for president in 2020.
Holder has continued fighting the battle to protect voting rights that he started during the Obama administration. Trump has already signaled his intention to suppress voting among people of color, using the false pretext of stopping voter fraud. The former attorney general is focusing his attention on the struggle to restore voting rights to ex-felons. Policies to indefinitely prevent former offenders from voting is racist. It disproportionately affects Black people, and it’s enforced mainly in Republican-controlled states with a deeply racist past.
Only two states, Maine and Vermont, don’t ban ex-offenders from voting, even while they’re incarcerated, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 26 states and the District of Columbia, voting rights are automatically restored upon release, in some cases after serving a parole period or paying outstanding fines.
In a dozen states, however, ex-felons indefinitely lose their voting rights. Some of those states require former felons to petition the governor (in a process that can take years) to have their voting rights restored. Typically, Republicans oppose restoring voting rights to ex-offenders because they would most likely vote for Democrats.
Holder endorsed a November ballot initiative in Florida to amend the state’s Constitution to restore the voting rights of 1.5 million former felons.
“We need to correct this injustice,” he stated. “I’m proud to join (the movement) and when necessary to lead.”