Churches or organizations that want to participate in the Chattanooga Voter Empowerment Movement are invited to New Monumental Baptist Church at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Follow the group on Twitter at ChattVEM or see Chattanooga Voter Empowerment page on Facebook for more information.
Stricter voter identification laws threaten to take away rights that past generations fought for, pastors told about 500 people Saturday at a march and rally to push voter registration and participation.
Black and poor people are in crisis and must use their voting rights for change -- to improve education, stop violence and bring equality to all people, said the Rev. Kenneth Love, executive director of the Hamilton County Democratic Party.
"We are in emergency mode. The alarm is sounding, and it's time for us to respond," Love said at the rally at Greater Tucker Baptist Church.
The group at the church included young and old, blacks and whites.
"It goes beyond race," said the Rev. Kenneth Ware, pastor of New Monumental Baptist Church. "This includes all people who have been separated from the liberties granted in this country. It's all of those who have been left out."
About two dozen ministers and the NAACP organized the event, called the Chattanooga Voter Empowerment Movement. Other marches and voting rallies will be scheduled throughout the year leading up to the November presidential election.
The turnout was the largest since 2008, when Barack Obama first ran for president, said Chandra Wilson, who helped coordinate the event.
"Like never before we need to exercise our right to vote," said the Rev. Ternae T. Jordan, pastor of Mount Canaan Baptist Church and president of the Servant Leadership Fellowship.
After a worship service, people marched or rode in vans along North Moore Road to the Brainerd Recreation Center where they cast their early voting ballots in the Hamilton County and presidential primary elections.
Some participants stood in line for more than an hour to vote, said City Councilwoman Carol Berz, who participated in the event.
Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith said he waited for two hours to vote, and he criticized the Hamilton County Election Commission for not better preparing for the crowd.
OBSTACLES TO VOTING
Republican legislatures in Tennessee and Georgia have passed laws requiring certain types of photo ID to vote, and as many as 15 states may have done so by the November election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Backers say the laws prevent voter fraud, but critics say they keep the elderly, the poor and minorities -- who are most likely to vote Democratic -- from casting ballots.
"Poll tax, literacy tax, all of that is to put you back," said the Rev. H.H. Wright, who led the march Saturday with former local NAACP President James Mapp. "If we win this, they'll come with something else. They can't change the law, but they pick at it."
Joe Rowe, local NAACP vice president, said state figures show that out of 625,000 people who don't have government-issued identification, only about 12,000 people have obtained it since the law was implemented.
In Hamilton County, 7,000 people have driver's licenses with no picture on them as allowed by state law.
Without photo identification, they will not be allowed to vote, said Rowe.
PAST STRUGGLES RECALLED
Wright, Mapp and the Rev. John Edwards Sr., who also led the march, were among local leaders who faced violence and put their lives at risk during the 1950s and '60s as they led efforts for equality.
"Any organization that had to do with the betterment of the underclass, I was there," said Edwards.
"My house was bombed," he said "Our houses were bombed because we were standing up for justice."
The Rev. Rozario Slack, pastor of Temple of Faith Deliverance Church of God in Christ, sensed the march was historic.
"I had to come. This is a flashback," said Slack. "I believe we've got to reclaim the same spirit of oneness that was during the civil rights movement."