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From the Pulpit to the People to the Polls: How African American Churches Can Make a Difference in 2012

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Today, as Americans across the country celebrate the life and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we must also consider the future of his legacy. Dr. King's movement achieved great strides for African Americans and others who had been left out of the American dream. But even as we celebrate the great achievements of the Civil Rights movement, a key accomplishment of the movement is under attack: the right of every eligible citizen to cast a ballot that counts.

The 2008 election was a hopeful one for African Americans in our democracy -not because of who was elected, but because who turned out to vote. For the first time in American history, we voted at a nearly identical rate to our white neighbors. In fact, African American women had the highest turnout rate of any group of any race. More than 40 years after the end of Jim Crow (acknowledging the resurrection of what many are calling the "New Jim Crow"), we closed that persisting gap of participation. In greater numbers than ever before, we stood up and we spoke with our vote.

But since 2008, our right to vote has been under an unprecedented attack. Shortly after the election, over half of Republican voters said that the presidential election had been stolen for Barack Obama by ACORN, an organization that worked to register new voters -- including many African Americans. In response to this myth, promoted by the right-wing media and politicians, state legislatures across the country have been trying to make it harder to register to vote. The most common form this takes is Voter ID laws, which, under the guise of preventing the over-hyped problem of "voter fraud," in fact keep millions of voters from the polls. These laws, which are on the books or being considered in 41 states, target voters who don't have certain types of government ID -- overwhelmingly the young, the elderly and persons of color.

What is even more discouraging than the faulty basis of these restrictive laws is where they come from. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group funded by large corporations that writes legislation for state legislators, is pushing these voter ID laws to states around the country. Why do big business interests care about restricting voting rights? Because voting is the only way those of us without millions of dollars to spend on elections can make our voices, and the issues we care about, heard.

The real goals of these laws were thrown into sharp light in Tennessee late last year, when we learned about Dorothy Cooper, a 96-year-old black woman, who was denied a voter ID because she couldn't produce a copy of her marriage license. Mrs. Cooper had voted nearly every year since she was of voting age, and had never before run into a problem registering - even in the Jim Crow south. Mrs. Cooper wasn't trying to commit fraud, she was trying to exercise her right and her duty as a citizen. Yet, she was treated like a criminal.

While we can and should fight the enactment of these laws, we can't stop there. The most important thing any American can do to make sure their voice is heard in the democratic process is to know your rights and vote. This is especially true for African Americans, who are disproportionately being targeted and impacted by these new laws.

It's important that people of all faiths get out and vote. But in the African American community, one of the most important institutions of social change we have is our churches, our places of worship. Right-wing evangelical churches have been enormously effective at getting out the vote in important elections. It's time for the Black church to catch up.

Last election day, my group, the African American Ministers Leadership Council, launched VESSELS, a year-long non-partisan, faith based civic engagement campaign aimed at using the power of the pulpit to bring African Americans and other traditionally disenfranchised groups to the polls. We work to maximize participation, spread information about voter suppression, and prepare voters to meet challenges at polling places.

The Black Church has a longstanding history of championing for political, educational and economic rights not only for African Americans, but for all citizens. Forty-four years after the death of Dr. King, we must continue the fight.

A version of this post appeared in OtherWords.