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Voter-suppression laws that aim to undermine coalitions like those that elected President Barack Obama are the No. 1 issue facing Americans, the president of the nation's largest civil rights organization said Friday.
"The right to vote is the right upon which every other right is leveraged," Benjamin Jealous, NAACP president and chief executive, said at the NAACP Salt Lake branch's 94th annual Life Membership and Freedom Banquet.
He said the nation's power structure has observed the way blacks, Latinos and students of all colors are voting and "they realize quite simply that the clock is running out on their strategy for power."
The fear that results explains attempts in Florida to place restrictions on voter registration, Jealous said. It explains efforts to limit Sunday and early voting or enforce overly stringent voter identification requirements.
All these restrictions are aimed at those outside the traditional power structure.
"They have figured out that we determine how fast the future comes."
Jealous, 40, the youngest person ever to lead the Baltimore-based NAACP, has made voter rights a hallmark of his five-year administration, which ends next week with the appointment of Lorraine C. Miller as interim president and CEO.
Jealous earlier this fall announced he would leave the position but vowed to remain an active civil rights leader.
The NAACP has said it will move forward with organizational goals that Jealous set in motion. In addition to fighting for voter rights and registering thousands of new voters, those goals include initiatives to outlaw racial profiling, end the death penalty, reform gun laws and ensure broad access to health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.
Jealous called for underrepresented groups to mobilize.
"Our country has always had a civil war between the populists and patriarchs. In a democracy there's always a tension between organized money and organized people," he said.
The trump card, though, is always held by the larger group.
"We can take heart in the fact that organized people can win every time but we must be organized," Jealous said. "We must believe in us as much as the other side fears us."
His remarks at Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City were a prelude to the NAACP Salt Lake branch's presentation of its Albert Fritz Civil Rights Worker of the Year Award. Attorney Alain Balmanno earned the honor for his work litigating fair-housing cases on behalf of the NAACP.
Albert Fritz Civil Rights Worker of the Year Award
Attorney Alain Balmanno on Friday received the NAACP Salt Lake Branch's annual civil rights award in recognition of his work on fair housing cases on behalf of the NAACP. Balmanno, a member of the NAACP's legal redress and veterans affairs committees, also has worked to develop affordable housing ordinances, the Salt Lake Branch said.