WASHINGTON – Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe told civil rights activists that the “proudest moment” of his life was restoring voting rights for thousands of felons in Virginia.
Referring to the court challenges of his executive order, McAuliffe joked that he would be “all right” if he had to spend a few days in jail as a result of the situation.
Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, praised McAuliffe for restoring felons’ voting rights, calling him a civil and voting rights champion.
“We have been in the trenches together but I have never been more proud than when he stood up and fought the right-wingers that did not want to restore voting rights in the state of Virginia,” said Sharpton at the National Action Network’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast, where McAuliffe was honored with an award.
McAuliffe said his executive order, which initially covered 206,000 felons in Virginia, was the right decision despite the legal challenges that ensued.
“Everybody deserves a second chance. Everybody makes mistakes. You want to welcome people back into society,” he said. “It was the single largest enfranchisement for felons of any governor in the history of America. It was the right thing to do.”
McAuliffe told the audience that he was “sick and tired” of hearing felons who served their sentences tell him they cannot show their children an “I voted” sticker on Election Day.
“Guess what happened? The speaker and Senate leader sued me,” he said.
McAuliffe also said he has a “badge of honor” for being the first Virginia governor to be sued for contempt of court.
“I told the attorney general, Reverend, I almost hope that, ah, put me away for a couple of days. Instead of ‘Letters from Birmingham’ I could have ‘Letters for Richmond’ and my wife would bring me over lunch every day. I’d be all right. I could lose a few pounds, what the heck,” he said. “But this time the Supreme Court said, ‘nope, the governor is doing the right thing,’ so we have proceeded to restore these rights.”
During the event, Sharpton referred to the recent spat between Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and President Trump. Lewis told NBC News he did not regard Trump’s victory as “legitimate” due to the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Trump lashed out against Lewis on Twitter, accusing the congressman of being “all talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”
Sharpton urged Trump to be “King-like” and “reach out” to Lewis.
“On the national chessboard, don’t behave like a pawn if you’ve been made a king. It’s time for us to get bigger than that,” he said. “I would hope he reaches out to John Lewis.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told the National Action Network activists to remember they are not powerless.
“We cannot allow our inability to do everything to undermine our determination to do something. We cannot get caught up in that state of sedentary agitation where we sit on our couch so upset about what’s going on and fail to realize that we have to do something about it,” he said.
Booker challenged the activists in the room to turn their words into actions and not just repeat slogans.
Quoting a Langston Hughes poem, “Let America be America Again,” Booker said, “America never was America to me.”
“I swear this oath – America will be. As Langston Hughes called us, may we make our nation great, may we make our nation real, not just for the powerful and the privileged few, but for the beautiful and the dignified all,” Booker said.
Actress and choreographer Debbie Allen was also recognized at the event with an award for her achievements in the arts.