King Widow Calls For Ex-Con Voting

The widow of Martin Luther King Jr. said the right to vote should be open to everyone in a democracy, including those who have been convicted of crimes.

Ending the disenfranchisement (search) of convicted felons is part of the unfinished business of the civil rights movement, Coretta Scott King (search) said at an NAACP event marking the 40th anniversary of the Portland chapter in Maine.

During her keynote address Saturday night, King emphasized the need for political empowerment as a way to help minorities achieve gains in areas such as jobs and education.

She said that in a democracy, the right to vote should be absolute and should not, as in some states, be withheld from felons who have completed their prison sentences or remain free on probation or parole.

"Something is very wrong with laws that prevent any citizen from experiencing his or her democratic right, even when they have paid their debt to society," she told the crowd.

King, praising Maine and Vermont as the only states which allow prison inmates to vote, cited estimates that one in four black men in six states are barred from voting because of their convictions.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search), D-N.Y., who attended Saturday's event prior to an appearance at a John Kerry fund-raiser, praised the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (search) for "doing the front-line work on behalf of civil rights and reconciliation."

The NAACP established a Portland chapter in the late 1940s, but the chapter was disbanded in 1959. It was revived five years later at the height of the civil rights movement. Its president, Gerald Talbot, went on to become the state's first black legislator.

King cautioned that many people think the work of the civil rights movement has been completed. While blacks are no longer barred from public facilities, many schools and neighborhoods are still essentially segregated, she said.

"When we eliminate the vestiges of discrimination, we make our society more of a meritocracy in which all people have a chance to fulfill their potential," King said.