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Trayvon Martin killing boosts Easter voter-registration drive

By Jeff Kunerth, The Orlando Sentinel –

ORLANDO, Fla. — On Palm Sunday, LaVon Bracy stood before the congregation of New Covenant Baptist Church in Orlando and announced plans to participate in an effort by 50,000 black congregations nationwide to register 1 million voters on Easter Sunday.

“All I’m asking for is any person willing to find one person to register to vote,” said LaVon, wife of Pastor Randolph Bracy Jr. “We are trying to register as many people as possible. I expect great success next Sunday.”

The mass voter-registration drive — calculated to take advantage of Easter’s larger-than-normal Sunday attendance — is spearheaded by the Rev. Jamal Bryant, a Baltimore preacher. Bryant estimates there are as many as 5 million unregistered voters in the pews of America’s black churches.

Bryant, who started organizing the drive before the Feb. 26 killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., is among the black civil rights leaders trying to transfer the indignation over the teen’s death into action.

His impassioned address during a Martin rally in Sanford last week sounded like a voter-registration pep rally for a new civil rights movement carried on by a younger generation.

“The hip-hop generation is taking over the civil rights movement,” said Bryant, senior pastor of Empowerment Temple.

Similarly, the Rev. Jesse Jackson used his Sunday sermon March 25 at Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Eatonville, Fla., to preach voter registration as a way of creating permanent change out of a tragedy, calling for the “Trayvon Martin voter-registration movement.”

He challenged those attending the service who were not registered to vote to come forward and register. From the crowd of 1,600, about a dozen stepped forward.

Whether protest can be converted into political action remains an open, ongoing question. In the weeks after Martin’s death, there has not been a surge of blacks registering to vote in Seminole County — just 103 in March. In Sanford, 24 blacks registered to vote in March.

Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertle said he took voter-registration forms with him to the City Commission meeting about issues surrounding Martin’s death for anyone who wanted one.

“Nobody did,” Ertle said. “But it’s still new.”

Turning “the moment” into “a movement” will depend on whether all the emotion swirling around Martin dissipates over time or coalesces into a permanent desire to make a difference, said the Rev. Willie Barnes, pastor of Macedonia Baptist.

“You can’t just show up and shout and make noise. You have to do it with the vote,” Barnes said. “You can’t change the system until you change the people who are running it.”

Barnes said his church is not making any special effort to register voters on Easter, but voter registration has become a routine part of his Sunday announcements. Several members of his congregation are certified by the elections office to register voters, he said.

Allie Braswell, president of the Central Florida Urban League, said it may be too early to tell whether the masses marching for Martin can be converted into a mass infusion of new black voters.

“I cannot judge yet where we are,” he said, but the opportunity is there. “If we really want to bring about lasting change, we have to get involved. To encourage the younger generation to get involved is the right thing to do.”

When LaVon Bracy asked for volunteers to participate in the Easter Sunday voter-registration drive, Reginald Willis raised his hand for a registration form. Willis, a 49-year-old hotel employee, said he registered to vote in 2008 after years of indifference. He feels differently now.

“It’s essential for us to vote. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” Willis said.

The Martin case highlights the importance of voting if the minority community wants its voice heard after all the shouting is over, Willis said.

“This raises the importance of voting and what it means when you don’t vote,” he said.

Similarly, New Covenant member LaJune Davis registered to vote in January and plans to register another voter for Easter Sunday.

“This seems to be the time for minorities to stand up and be counted,” she said.

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