Just a day after his speech reflecting on the anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – which he credited with paving the way for his historic presidency – President Obama told modern-day civil rights activists that the gains of the last 50 years are at risk of being dismantled by Republican efforts to limit access to the ballot.
"The right to vote is threatened today in a way that it has not been since the Voting Rights Act became law nearly five decades ago," he said in remarks at the annual convention of the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network in New York City.
Obama cited recent restrictive voting legislation requiring additional identification, closing polls on Sunday, and creating hurdles for overseas soldiers and married women who have changed their last names. These Republican-led changes – which, he reminded the audience, have often by inspired by explicitly partisan aims – "harm the entire country," he said.
The agenda of this year's convention, which is billed as the largest civil rights gathering of the year, was designed to focus heavily on harnessing the group's influence to shape the outcome of the midterm elections and electing representatives who support its agenda, Sharpton told The Root.
In an interview before Obama's speech, he praised the Obama administration's work on civil rights issues and social-justice issues, including voting rights. "I've not seen a Justice Department more active since the 1960s. I think if we're talking about a civil rights agenda – 'Stand your ground,' stop and frisk, voter ID, commuting sentences – they've been solid," he said. His remarks introducing the president echoed this sentiment, calling him "our action president" and telling the audience, "The real value of this convention will be when we leave here, when we go in the trenches and protect the right to vote."
Obama, who last spoke to the National Action Network at its 2011 convention, was incredulous about the assault on voting rights, saying, "We should not be having an argument about this ... There are a lot of things we can argue about. But the right to vote? What kind of a political platform is that? Why would you make that a part of your agenda, preventing people from voting?"
But he urged the audience not to treat new barriers against voting "as an excuse not to participate," urging them not to "purposefully give our power away" by becoming discouraged and staying home on Election Day.
"Go out there and vote. You can make a change. You do have the power," he said. "I've had my last election, but I need you to make sure that the changes that we started continue for decades to come."
(Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.)