Voting Rights Fix Tests Civil Rights Movement's Strength

The same Voting Rights Act that grew partially from the March on Washington 50 years ago into one of the most successful civil rights-era laws has become a source of rancor, even straining the traditional coalition of Republicans and Democrats who have come together in favor of such vigilance.

Marking half a century since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. King gave voice to the aspirations of millions of African-Americans across the country is bittersweet for civil rights activists in 2013.

"Within the civil rights movement, there is definitely a sense that there's a continued war on voting and we haven't made it to the mountain top yet," said Katherine Culliton-González, director of Voter Protection for the Advancement project.

"Here we are in 2013, at the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and we're having to try to stop going backwards."

Watch the 50th Anniversary of MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech LIVE Wednesday 11:30 a.m. ET with Social Soundtracker.

Blacks have never been closer than now to achieving King's dream, but there is also more political division than in decades about whether changes to voting rights laws in jurisdictions across the country constitute an affront to civil rights.

Combating election law changes they believe are discriminatory is at the top of the agenda of civil rights activists, but many of Republicans and Democrats who have historically come together to support continued federal vigilance over potentially discriminatory laws are divided.

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Many people want to laud the message of the civil rights movement 50 years ago, but there is a difference of opinion among some on whether it even still exists.

"I think the civil rights groups are in bad shape, by and large, because they can't acknowledge where we are right now," said Abigail Thernstrom, a conservative who is the vice chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. "They have to keep all this doom and gloom up."

And in the face of the same facts, proponents and opponents of voter ID laws and other provisions that change electoral laws reach different conclusions.

"You have to have some evidence of intent, of racist intent," Thernstrom said. "I don't think there is any."

Take North Carolina, where a slew of new voter laws --including a provision that requires voters to show a state-issued ID -- were signed into law. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the laws a reading of the "greatest hits of voter suppression" in an expansive speech on the threat of voter suppression laws.

But asked whether such laws could hurt minority participation in elections, North Carolina Republican National Committeewoman Ada Fisher said "absolutely not."

"The reason voter ID has been introduced is people want people who are from the state to vote, we want everybody to vote," Fisher, who is African-American, told ABC News. "We are not trying to disenfranchise people."

In many ways, the challenge the civil rights community faces is also a product of its success.

As Clinton lamented in her speech this month, "some take the historic success of the Voting Rights Act is a sign that discrimination is a thing of the past."

Thanks largely to the Voting Rights Act, gone are the days when lawmakers, particularly in the South, blatantly attempted to prevent black voters from getting to the polls with brazen and effective tools like poll taxes and literacy tests.

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