COLUMBIA, S.C. - Thousands commemorating the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday yesterday outside South Carolina’s capitol heard a message that would not have been out of place during the halcyon days of the civil rights movement a half-century ago: the need to protect all citizens’ right to vote.
A similar tone was struck at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King preached from 1960 until his death. There and in South Carolina, speakers condemned the voter identification laws they said are meant to suppress black voter turnout.
For most of 13 years in South Carolina, the attention at the NAACP’s annual rally has been on the Confederate flag that still waves outside the State House. But yesterday, the civil rights group shifted the focus to laws requiring voters to show photo identification before they can cast ballots, which the group and many other critics say is especially discriminatory toward African-Americans and the poor.
South Carolina’s new law was rejected last month by the US Justice Department, but Governor Nikki Haley vowed to fight the federal government in court. At least a half-dozen other states passed similar voter ID laws in 2011.
“This has been quite a faith-testing year. We have seen the greatest attack on voting rights since segregation,’’ said Benjamin Todd Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The shift in tactics was also noted by the keynote speaker at the Columbia rally, US Attorney General Eric Holder.
Last month, Holder said the Justice Department was committed to fighting any laws that keep people from the ballot box. He told the crowd he was keenly aware he could not have become the nation’s first African-American attorney general without the blood shed by King and other civil rights pioneers.
“The right to vote is not only the cornerstone of our governance, it is the lifeblood of our democracy. And no force has proved more powerful, or more integral to the success of the great American experiment, than efforts to expand the franchise,’’ Holder said. “Let me be very, very clear: The arc of American history has bent toward the inclusion, not the exclusion, of more of our fellow citizens in the electoral process. We must ensure that this continues.’’
Texas’s new voter ID law is before the Justice Department, which reviews changes in voting laws in nine mostly Southern states because of their history of discriminatory voting practices. Other states that passed such laws in 2011 included Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.
Similar laws already were on the books in Georgia and Indiana, and they were approved by President George W. Bush’s Justice Department. Indiana’s law, passed in 2005, was upheld by the US Supreme Court in 2008.
Critics have likened the laws to the poll taxes and tests used to prevent blacks from voting during the civil rights era. Supporters, many of whom are Republicans, say such laws are needed to prevent fraud.
“I signed a bill that would protect the integrity of our voting,’’ Haley said in a statement welcoming Holder to South Carolina.
Rallies and memorial events were held in cities across the nation yesterday to observe King’s legacy.
At the Atlanta church where King once preached, the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock said some in America disrespect King’s legacy by “cutting off those for whom he died and the principles for which he fought.’’
He called voter ID laws an affront to the memory of the civil rights leader. “You cannot celebrate Dr. King on Monday, and undermine people’s ability to vote on Super Tuesday,’’ Warnock said.
In New York, about 100 Occupy Wall Street protesters marched from the city’s African Burial Ground to the Federal Reserve, saying their own fight for more economic opportunity is akin to King’s.
A smaller group also protested yesterday at a Bank of America branch in Manhattan. Police arrested four people on charges of trespassing.
The protesters prayed and sang “We Shall Overcome’’ at the burial ground, which is a national monument and marks the cemetery where free and enslaved Africans were buried during the 17th and 18th centuries.
The group then marched a few blocks south to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where they huddled in 30-degree weather to listen to speakers who criticized what they called corporate greed. The demonstrators carried signs reading, “We oppose economic inequality’’ and “Democracy for sale no more.’’
In Washington, President Obama and his family marked the day by helping to build bookshelves in a local school library. The president said there was no better way to celebrate King’s life than to spend the day helping others.