COLUMBIA, S.C. — Hundreds of people rallied Monday outside the South Carolina capitol to honor the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and protest the state's voter identification law.
While rallies in previous years have often been focused on protesting the Confederate flag that flies outside the Statehouse near a memorial for Confederate soldiers, the attention this year has turned to the voter ID law.
The U.S. Justice Department has rejected the law. The Obama administration said it didn't pass muster under the 1965 voting rights act, which outlawed discriminatory practices that prevented blacks from voting. On Monday, marchers carried signs that read: "Voter ID(equals)Poll Tax."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was among those slated to speak.
William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, spoke during a morning prayer service and left little doubt that the law would be the day's focus. He spoke of the many black pioneers who gave their lives so their children and grandchildren could vote, referring to civil rights icons like Medgar Evers. He also referred to three South Carolina State University students gunned down by police during a civil rights protest in 1968.
Barber said it was a critical time to make sure hard-fought voting rights are not lost.
"We are here to stand up, not to back down," Barber said.
Several other states have enacted laws similar to the one passed in South Carolina, which requires voters to show a photo ID before casting ballots. Texas, Alabama, Kansas, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Wisconsin are among them.
Such 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 U.S. 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.
In Holder's prepared remarks Monday, which were released by his office before he spoke, the nation's top attorney pledged to make the nation's elections system more accessible to U.S. citizens. Holder disagreed with those who say parts of the Voting Rights Act are no longer necessary.
"I wish this were the case. But the reality is that — in jurisdictions across the country - both overt and subtle forms of discrimination remain all too common," he said.
"And though nearly five decades have passed since Dr. King shared his vision from the mountaintop — despite all the progress we've made, the barriers we've broken down, and the divisions we've healed — as a nation, we have not yet reached the Promised Land."
Cities across the U.S. were hosting rallies and other events to mark the holiday. In Washington, President Barack Obama and his family were commemorating the day with a volunteer service project at a local school. The family greeted volunteers and then helped build bookshelves in the school's library. The president said there was no better way to celebrate King's life than to spend the day helping others.
Washington is home to the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, where some braved temperatures around 30 degrees Monday to visit the 30-foot statue of King.
Dorothy Drake, 61, and her sister Beulah Ashby, 59, were visiting the memorial from North Carolina. The women both went to segregated schools as children and remembered not being able to eat inside certain restaurants, sitting on the back of the bus, and not being allowed to stay in certain hotels.
Ashby said she was proud that King now stands among the presidents honored with memorials in the nation's capital.
"I woke up this morning, and it gave me great joy to know that I was coming here," Ashby said. "I know it's a piece of stone, and I know it's one man, but it was just pride. Pride. Happiness. Joy, in just knowing that I could come and just have a piece of that history, the changing in the world."
Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko contributed to this report from Washington.