SALT LAKE CITY — The NAACP's outgoing national president urged Salt Lake members and supporters to take the fight for civil rights to the ballot box.
"The reality is that the new front line for civil rights for this century isn't the federal courthouse. It is the state house," said Benjamin Jealous, NAACP president and CEO. "The big battles now are in state capitols across the country, and that's why your work here in Salt Lake City is so important."
Jealous was Friday's keynote speaker at the NAACP Salt Lake Branch's 94th annual Life Membership and Freedom Fund Banquet, where he put an emphasis on voter registration and participation.
"Virtually nobody a year ago or two years ago or three years ago would have said (their top priority is) voting rights. That's something we got done a long time ago," Jealous said. "Now it has to be the No. 1 issue for all of us as a group."
As a backdrop to the importance of activating and protecting voters, Jealous reiterated some of NAACP's earliest efforts to ensure equal access for voters and recent campaigns to combat voter identification laws that the organization contends targets the poor and the elderly.
Voter outreach and access is increasingly important, as minority votes become essential to win elections, Jealous said, drawing applause when he added that the far right has its "back against the wall demographically" and is running out time.
"We determine how fast the future comes," he said. "If we do nothing, it may show up in 30 years. But if we organize — in places like Georgia where the presidency was determined by 300,000 votes, and there are 600,000 unregistered black people in that state — what may take 30 years if we do nothing may get done in 10."
Jealous applauded the NAACP's growing digital presence, which has swelled from 175,000 online activists to more than 600,000. The number of donors has reached 120,000, and membership has increased for the third consecutive year, he said.
Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch, reiterated the local group's continuing dedication to the organization's five "game-changer" issues: economic sustainability, education, health, public safety and criminal justice, and voting rights and political representation.
"It will take the NAACP members and the community working together to play a pivotal role in all our efforts to promote our agenda," Williams said, repeating the evening's slogan, "we shall not be moved."
The Salt Lake Branch honored Alain Balmanno with the Albert B. Fritz Civil Rights Worker of the Year award, thanking him for his work litigating fair housing cases on behalf of the NAACP and support of affordable housing ordinances. Balmanno is a member of the branch's Legal Redress Committee and chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.
Three community groups — the Salt Lake League of Women Voters, the Human Rights Campaign and the Upsilon Beta Omega chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority — were given the President's Award for their work with NAACP.
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