COLUMBIA — Local and national African-American leaders Tuesday framed the state’s controversial voter ID law as a continuation of the nation’s historical efforts to suppress black voters.

The remarks from leaders of area historically black colleges and universities and MSNBC personality Al Sharpton came during an event billed as a “voter engagement and protection community forum” held on National Voter Registration Day.

U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the third-ranking congressional Democrat from Columbia, organized the gathering, attended by more than 450 people — many of them students at Benedict College and Allen University.

“Think about these creative devices that you’ve heard a little bit about today when we’re talking about this new voter ID legislation, and what that might do for you,” said Pamela Wilson, Allen’s president. “Now, at some point this has to stop. People have to decide and believe that we are actually citizens of this wonderful country we call America. At some point, we’re going to have to stop proving ourselves.”

Opponents of the law and the U.S. Department of Justice have said the law will disproportionately disenfranchise minorities who lack one of five forms of ID required to vote under the law. Supporters say the law is not discriminatory and highlight the “reasonable impediment” procedure proposed by the state that would allow voters without an acceptable ID to cast a provisional ballot.

Such voters would have to sign an affidavit explaining why they couldn’t obtain an ID.

A three-judge federal panel that heard the state’s challenge to the Justice Department’s December block of the measure is expected to rule on the law’s legality next month.

If the judges reject the law, the state is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

African-American leaders Tuesday told audience members gathered at the Drew Wellness Center, the vast majority of whom were black, that the measure should not deter them from voting.

“We’re not going to allow those merchants of fear and evil to prevail,” Clyburn said.

Sharpton and others said South Carolina voters can send a powerful message with strong turnout on Election Day, referencing the state’s important role in historical civil rights struggles.

“There is no state more important than South Carolina,” Sharpton said. “What you do on Nov. 6, no matter who you vote for, is going to be significant to people all over the country.”

Sharpton, who planned to host his radio and MSNBC shows from Columbia after the event, also took a shot at Gov. Nikki Haley for her support of the voter ID law.

“Gov. Haley, you may have the Confederate flag in front of the Capitol, but this isn’t the Confederacy no more,” he said.

Haley said in a statement that the ID law isn’t about race. “As a racial minority, I find it both ironic and offensive that Al Sharpton is saying that minorities are somehow incapable of performing the simple task of getting their photo taken,” she said. “Instead of heeding Sharpton’s predictably racially-charged attacks, all South Carolinians, whether white, black, or brown, should be united behind the idea that everyone who wants to vote should be able to and no one should be allowed to undermine our democracy by voting illegally.”