Church attendees at the historic Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama walked out in protest on Sunday after Alabama's secretary of state, John Merrill, discussed how the state is making sure there are more opportunities for Alabama residents to obtain photo identification so they can register to vote and participate in the electoral process.
The service, which was attended by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rep. Terri Sewell (D., Ala.), Merrill, and North Carolina NAACP President Dr. William Barber, reflected on the history of African Americans fighting for voting rights and the role that Brown Chapel played in the 1960s before the adoption of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
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Each of the aforementioned names spoke at the service, but Merrill, a Republican, received backlash after he told the audience that the state is in the process of creating more opportunities for people in Alabama to obtain photo identification to vote, WSFA 12 News reported.
"We want to make sure that every eligible U.S. citizen that is a resident of Alabama is registered to vote and has a photo ID so they can participate in the electoral process at they level that they want to participate," Merrill said.
Several people called out in opposition to what Merrill was saying during his speech. Some even walked out, including Barber, who said that Merrill was being disrespectful to the setting of the service.
"Standing on this historic ground, where people died for voting rights, we cannot accept this hypocrisy of voter suppression," Barber said. "Photo ID … voter ID is based on the lie of voter fraud. It was not an issue until African Americans and brown people started voting during the campaign for President Obama. It's just like the poll tax. It's being proven in court unconstitutional."
"Too much blood is on the pews of that church and in these wall for us to sit there and not at least say, ‘Excuse me,' not cursing but, ‘Excuse me Mr. Secretary of State, you're wrong,'" Barber added.
Despite moments of tension during Merrill's speech, the serviced continued as Sewell called for unity and peaceful activism.
Obtaining voter IDs has been a contentious issue that critics argue is tantamount to voter suppression. Proponents claim voter IDs are necessary to ensure the integrity of elections, noting examples like a report released last year from the Public Interest Legal Foundation, an Indiana-based group that litigates to protect election integrity. The group discovered that more than 1,000 illegal immigrants were on the voting rolls in eight Virginia counties, according to the Washington Free Beacon.
PILF announced in late January that it had settled lawsuits against the City of Manassas and Chesterfield County. The lawsuits were initiated after the jurisdictions refused to provide the group with voter information. The settlement included the disclosure of the total number of noncitizens registered to vote in the Virginia locales.
"These are positive steps toward quantifying the true extent of noncitizen voter registration in Virginia," PILF President and General Counsel J. Christian Adams said after the settlement. "Washington and Richmond alike are positioned to consider various election integrity reforms and are right to do so. Those discussions deserve precise data like we’ve obtained."
PILF released a report last year that found more than 1,000 illegal aliens on voter rolls in just eight Virginia jurisdictions that responded to records requests from the group. Twenty percent of the more than 1,000 individuals voted, according to the group.