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Rallying the vote: The Rev. Al Sharpton preaches impact of minority voices
Monday, October 18, 2004
By Clayton Hardiman

The vision that the Rev. Al Sharpton articulated Sunday night for Muskegon begins Nov. 2.

It starts not when the polls open but a half-hour to an hour earlier.

"If the polls open at 7, you line up outside at 6:30," Sharpton told a spirited overflow crowd at Philadelphia Missionary Baptist Church in Muskegon.

Sharpton, who stumped across Michigan Sunday on behalf of the Kerry/Edwards campaign, didn't limit his comments to partisan statements on behalf of the Democratic ticket.

He also told his listeners not to waste their votes, reciting the litany of sacrifices in the civil rights movement that made those votes possible.

The Rev. William Anderson, the host pastor, described the audience response as nothing less than "just awesome."

"It was very enthusiastic," said Patsy Petty, a community voter registration activist.

Sharpton, a 50-year-old activist from New York, has evoked both enthusiasm and controversy during his civil rights career. He was a candidate himself for the Democratic nomination for president.

Well over 500 people packed the church's sanctuary area, which normally holds about 400. Extra chairs were placed in the aisles and the rear, and an additional viewing area was arranged in the basement via a large-screen television.

Sharpton, who spoke for nearly an hour, "was fantastic," said Patty Bennett, who was part of the multiracial crowd Sunday.

Among the elements that particularly impressed her was the hope in Sharpton's message, Bennett said. "He said you may not be able to control the circumstances that get you down, but you should always look up," she said.

Sharpton peppered his speech with jokes at President Bush's expense, but his speech was more than just partisan comments. He also called on black listeners and others to validate their concerns about the country's direction with a major turnout.

Sharpton told his listeners that they couldn't afford not to vote -- not with what he described as a drain of jobs, peace, health insurance and other quality-of-life elements from their lives, which he attributed to Bush.

But there were other reasons people could not afford to sacrifice their hard-won voting rights, Sharpton said.

Sharpton spoke of the historical price that had been paid in blood to allow people of all races to vote. He cited the four girls who lost their lives in the church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., during civil rights activities in 1963; and the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964.

"He really talked to us about the great price that has been paid for us to have the right to vote," Anderson said. "He said we should be the first people in line."

That a speaker of Sharpton's caliber would come to a community of Muskegon's size is a comment about the importance of the current campaign, Anderson said.

"It means we're at a critical stage," Anderson said. "They're letting us know this is a critical situation.

"(Sharpton) was telling us not only to go to the polls but to make sure our neighbor goes and our neighbor's neighbor goes and to be a presence in the community ourselves."

Petty received Sharpton's message gladly. She said she has been particularly disheartened by the apathy she has encountered while working to increase voter registration in Muskegon and Muskegon Heights.

The Sharpton visit was organized in a hurry, with pieces falling into place quickly. Six member churches of the Ministers Fellowship of Greater Muskegon hosted the event, according to Anderson, president of the fellowship.

Sharpton made stops at several Detroit churches earlier in the day, calling on black voters to turn out for the presidential election and warning that a Bush re-election could erode civil rights gains.

He also had planned stops in Ypsilanti, Lansing, Flint and Saginaw Sunday and today.


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