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Inland pastors join campaign targeting apathy, restrictive voter ID laws

By Chris Levister

Easter Sunday is regarded as a living symbol of Jesus Christ, the empty tomb and the Resurrection, the very nature of Christianity. In the black church, it is often a day of celebration, with standing room only attendance.

Amid an air of spirited singing and traditional Easter sermons, there was another important message coming from America’s black church the pulpits: “get out the vote”. The Empowerment Movement aimed at registering 1 million black voters on Easter Sunday targeting thousands of African-American churches is according to organizers, “by early accounts a success”. The mass voter-registration drive — calculated to take advantage of Easter's larger-than-normal Sunday attendance — was spearheaded by international speaker the Reverend Dr. Jamal Bryant, founder of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore, Maryland, and included multiple denominations. Each church is challenged to sign up 20 new voters, Bryant said in a press release announcing the effort.

“Our constitutional right to vote is under attack,” declared Bryant. Bryant estimates there are over 500,000 African American churches in the United States, and that there are as many as 5 million unregistered voters in their pews. Bryant, who started organizing the drive before the Feb. 26 killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida is among a swelling number the black civil-rights leaders trying to transfer the indignation over the teen's death into action.

The Empowerment Movement was organized to fight a rash of new voting laws that often keep elderly, young and black voters from casting ballots and what the U.S. Census Bureau called a troubling sign of voter apathy.

In September 2008, the campaign of then-Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama estimated there were 8 million African-Americans not registered to vote. Election Day, two months later, thanks to a massive voter registration campaign, the U.S. Census Bureau reported record turnouts by black voters.

Rev. Dr. Raymond Turner, pastor of Temple Missionary Baptist Church in San Bernardino insists a multifaceted problem needs a multifaceted response. “We are battling the spread of restrictive voter ID laws and at the same time voter apathy continues to be one of the black community’s biggest enemies,” he said. “Some people have lost sight of the importance of voting,” said Turner, past president of the Inland Empire Concerned African American Churches (IECAAC). “Look at the dismal turnout here in San Bernardino for example. People complain bitterly about the dysfunction in our city government. But those voices are not being heard at the polls.” "What I would hope, as we get people registered to vote, is that we can engage in civilized dialogue about critical issues such as dysfunctional government, crime, unemployment, mass incarceration, health and education disparities.” Turner points out that the black church pulpit has historically been the strength of the African-American community.

“At the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement, there were massive voter registration campaigns. Demonstrations, protests and critical bipartisan discussions led to cooler heads and change. Today, we see our voting rights are under attack again. The clock is being rolled backward.” IECAAC president-elect Patricia Small says signing up at least 20 people at each of the local black churches by the 2012 presidential election is doable.

“This is not just a onetime Easter Sunday campaign,” said Small. “We are encouraging congregations to work together, across denominations through the 2012 election. Christians have to educate, step up and speak out in unity.”

Turning the Empowerment Movement into a sustained national movement will depend on whether the outrage and emotion swirling around Trayvon Martin’s murder dissipates over time or coalesces into a permanent desire to make a difference, said Oakland pastor Estelle Williams who attended Easter Sunday service in San Bernardino.

April 4 marks the 44th anniversary of the assassination of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Williams says while King would be proud of the election of President Obama, he would be deeply disappointed in the state of our union.

“It’s open season on African Americans. Racism and profiling can seem overwhelming. Still, we have to embrace our faith and return to bedrock of our communities – our churches. We have to pursue the transformation with iron resolution.”

“If you don’t bother to vote, don’t expect to be counted,” insists Williams. “You can’t expect the system to change if you are not willing to do your part to change it.” If you don’t like the "stand your ground" law, vote to elect legislators who will repeal or change the law,” she said.

The Empowerment Movement is also in partnership with the NAACP, National Urban League, United Negro College Fund, The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Local churches are encouraged to join the movement. Voters in California can register to vote online.

For more information visit: www.Empowermentmovement.org.

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