The head of the NAACP on Monday likened the group's fight against conservative-backed voter ID laws that have been passed in several states to the great civil rights battles of the 1960s.
Benjamin Todd Jealous, the CEO and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said these are "Selma and Montgomery times," referring to historic Alabama civil rights confrontations. He challenged those attending the NAACP's annual convention to redouble their efforts to get out the vote in November.
"We must overwhelm the rising tide of voting suppression with the high tide of registration and mobilization and motivation and protection," he said.
"Simply put, the NAACP will never stand by as any state tries to encode discrimination into law," Jealous said.
The power to vote will be a key theme of the weeklong 103rd convention, which was expected to host about 8,000 attendees. An appearance by Attorney General Eric Holder was postponed from Monday until Tuesday, and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Vice President Joe Biden were also expected to speak at some point.
Since 2010, at least 10 states, including Texas, have passed laws requiring people to show a government-issued photo identification card when they go to the polls.
Supporters of voter ID laws, including many conservative Republicans, contend they are necessary to protect against voter fraud. But opponents say instances of such voter fraud are extremely rare and that voter ID laws could suppress turnout among the elderly, poor and some racial minorities who are less likely to have driver's licenses or passports and who might find it harder to miss work or lose pay to obtain proper ID.
George R. Brown Convention Center was only about half-full for Jealous' hour-long speech, but by the end he had much of the crowd standing and shouting, "Forward ever, backward never!"
"Our democracy is literally under attack from within. We have wealthy interests seeking to buy elections and when that ain't enough, suppress the vote," Jealous said. "There is no battle that is more important or urgent to the NAACP right now than the battle to preserve democracy itself. Let me be very clear, our right to vote is the right upon which our ability to defend every other right is leveraged."
He cited the group's 103 years in existence as proof it wouldn't cede ground on voting rights.
"If you let someone diminish the power of your vote you will already have lost a battle."
Jealous said with 120 days remaining before the November elections, his organization's members could allow the election to be stolen from them "or we can double down on democracy and overcome the tide of voter suppression."
"If we simply accept things as they are and allow those who wish to turn back the clocks and tides of all that we have gained, and block the forward movement of our movement for human rights ... we will have failed in our mission and our calling," he said.