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Former Freedom Rider and honorary chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary Conference Hank Thomas, right, discusses the importance of the Freedom Summer 50th Anniversary conference at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, June 25, 2014. The conference commemorates the months of 1964 when volunteers came from across the country to assist state and local NAACP leaders and others in Mississippi's voter registration drives. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis) / Rogelio V. Solis AP

JACKSON, Miss. - Even after a Senate runoff election in Mississippi that may have been largely decided by black voters, voting rights for minorities remain at risk, civil rights veterans say.

"The important thing is, it's not over,'' civil rights lawyer Armand Derfner said of the battle to prevent disenfranchisement of minority voters.

He and other civil rights veterans from around the country gathered this week at Tougaloo College in Jackson to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, when hundreds of volunteers, mostly college students, helped register blacks to vote in Mississippi.

Those veterans say today's battles focus largely on new voter ID laws enacted by GOP state lawmakers in Mississippi and elsewhere. Civil rights activists say the laws were crafted to keep minorities, who tend to vote Democratic, away from the ballot box.

The activists also want Congress to act on legislation that would require some Southern states, including Mississippi and Louisiana, to once again get federal approval before making any changes to their voting systems.

"We need an affirmative right to vote,'' said Bob Moses, who headed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's Mississippi operation in the 1960s. "If we don't get it, we will be fighting brush fires forever. As soon as you put one out, they will light another one.''

The Freedom Summer conference comes on the heels of one of the most competitive Senate races in the country - the Republican runoff between Sen. Thad Cochran and state Sen. Chris McDaniel, a Tea Party favorite. The runoff was open to any voter who had not voted in the earlier Democratic primary, and black Democrats played a key role in Cochran's victory.

As a result, civil rights veterans are demanding that Cochran, now considered a favorite to win re-election in November, pay more attention to issues important to black voters.

"We should remind Sen. Cochran that we had an impact on his election - that we were responsible for filling the gap in this election and that the black community should expect some positive outcomes from its participation in the election,'' said Leslie McLemore, a civil rights activist in Jackson.

Freedom Summer and other voter registration efforts are credited with helping increase the number of black voters in the South.

Freedom Summer "allowed us to expand the electorate in Mississippi in such a way that a sitting U.S. senator could win because of that expansion of the electorate,'' said McLemore.

Today, Mississippi has the highest number of black elected officials in the country.

Derfner, who represented black Mississippi voters before the Supreme Court in 1968 in one of the first constitutional tests of a key Voting Rights Act provision, said helping Cochran win the recent runoff "is not the kind of choice" black voters ever dreamed they would have to make.

But others noted that Cochran has supported projects important to the black community, including federal aid for historically black colleges and other education programs.

John Withers, 19, of Jackson, said he voted for Cochran because he didn't like McDaniel's reluctance to accept federal aid for education.

"I just know that what McDaniel stands for is not right,'' he said.

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, said black voters should demand "substantive results'' from Cochran - including his support for

Medicaid expansion in Mississippi and for education funding "that is fair to poorest children'' - in recognition of the crucial help they provided his re-election effort.

"We need the substance of political power,'' she said.

Hollis Watkins, a civil rights activist and national chair of the Freedom 50 conference, said "It would be a shame if (black voters) just let it all ride and (didn't) say anything or make any kind of request."

One such request is for Cochran to support a voting rights amendment pending in Congress.

The proposal, by Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., would revise the 1965 Voting Rights Act to once again require that certain states receive "pre-clearance" from the Justice Department before making any change - no matter how small - to their voting systems.

The legislation is in response to a Supreme Court decision last year that effectively threw out that requirement.

Cochran said in a statement soon after that decision that it "reflects well on the progress states like Mississippi have made over the last five decades.''

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has introduced a companion bill in the Senate, held a hearing on the bill Wednesday.

"But for the Voting Rights Act, those African-Americans that turned out to vote to support (Cochran's) re-election would not have the right to do so,'' said Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi NAACP. "So we are hopeful that... there is some reciprocity.''



Copyright 2014USAToday

Read the original story: Civil rights veterans: Voter protection still important

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