Last night, in my musical post in memory of the three civil rights workers slain in Mississippi 50 years ago, I argued that too little had been done to incorporate their martyrdom into our narrative of American Jewish history.
It’s only fair that I take note of those Jewish organizations that did act to remember the martyrs, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney, on the occasion of yesterday’s 50th anniversary of their murder.
On June 18, the Anti-Defamation League posted a statement on its Access ADL blog recalling the events surrounding their deaths in that Freedom Summer 1964. It noted that they had died while working to secure the right to vote for all Americans, and that today that right is once again under assault. It specifically cites last year’s Supreme Court decision on voting rights, which opened the way for a flood of mostly Southern state laws restricting access to the ballot. ADL said it’s “helping to lead a very large coalition” to “protect the same voting rights for which Schwermer, Goodman, and Chaney gave their lives.” And it’s working for congressional passage of a new law, the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, which sets new voter protections to replace the ones the court struck down.
On June 20, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism reposted the ADL statement on its own blog.
Meanwhile, Bend the Arc (formerly known as the Jewish Funds for Justice and Progressive Jewish Alliance) is collecting signatures on an online petition, “So All Can Vote,” urging Congress to pass the Voting Rights Amendment Act. And this coming Tuesday, June 24, it’s holding a nationwide vigil, in which it asks supporters to light yahrzeit candles in memory of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.
The coalition to restore voting rights is being organized by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which comprises more than 200 organizations nationwide. ADL holds one of the seven officer’s positions on the board of directors, along with the NAACP, Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, National Congress of American Indians, AARP, AFSCME, and the National Partnership for Women and Families. The Religious Action Center holds one of the other 24 board of directors seats.
Here are the ADL and Bend the Arc statements:
Honoring The Memory Of Murdered Civil Rights Workers June 21 marks the 50th anniversary of the murders of three young civil rights workers who travelled to Mississippi for “Freedom Summer,” to help African American residents understand their constitutional rights and register to vote. Facing deep institutional racism, fewer than five percent of the 500,000 black adults in Mississippi were then registered to vote. Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, 24, James Chaney, 21, and Andrew Goodman, 20, knew they were risking their lives for their cause. On June 21, 1964, after they had investigated the burning of a black church, the three young men were reported missing. Forty-four days later, their bodies were found buried deep in a dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi. The nation later learned that on their way back, the men’s car had been stopped for a pretext traffic violation and the three had been arrested and held for several hours. On their release, they were followed and murdered by members of the Neshoba Country Sheriff’s Department, Philadelphia Police, and members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). When Mississippi prosecutors refused to press murder charges, federal authorities, led by Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights John Doar, brought federal criminal civil rights charges – with mixed results: seven of the 18 defendants were convicted, with sentences between three and ten years. At the sentencing in December 1967, federal judge William Harold Cox crudely explained, “They killed one nigger, one Jew, and a white man. I gave them all what I thought they deserved.” In 1999, a new generation of Mississippi law enforcement officials reopened proceedings, and in 2005 the State of Mississippi indicted the Klan leader who had led the group. ADL welcomed his conviction. The murders in Mississippi in 1964 outraged the nation, providing additional momentum to propel passage of the comprehensive Civil Rights Act later that summer — and the Voting Rights Act (VRA), one of the most important, effective civil rights laws — the following year. We have come a long way as a nation since 1964, but vigilance is necessary to retain that hard-earned progress. In 2013, unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a critical VRA provision in Shelby County v. Holder. The League had urged the Court to uphold the Act in an amicus brief. Instead, a narrow Court majority eliminated the formula to determine which states must seek prior government approval for voting changes. The very day the decision was handed down, a number of states began enacting previously-blocked voter ID laws and redistricting measures. Now, fifty years later, the League is helping to lead a very large coalition working to fight discrimination, promote equality, and protect the same voting rights for which Schwermer, Goodman, and Chaney gave their lives. ADL is urging broad support for the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (VRAA) which would create a new formula for pre-clearing voting rights changes.
From Bend the Arc:
Fifty years ago, three civil rights activists were murdered because they believed in an America where all can vote. Today, voting rights are once again in peril. On June 24th, we are organizing a moment of silent vigil to demand that Congress act. We will light thousands of yahrzeit candles — one for every signature. On June 21, 1964, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner — an African-American Christian and two white Jews — were working to register African-Americans to vote in Mississippi as part of Freedom Summer ‘64 when they were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Today, we carry on their fight. Last year’s Supreme Court decision dismantled key sections of the Voting Rights Act, the landmark federal legislation prohibiting voting discrimination that became law after their murders. New voting barriers have already emerged, making it more difficult for the young, elderly, poor and people of color to vote. We must call on Congress to reinstate important voting protections by passing the pending Voting Rights Amendment Act before the window for action closes this summer. Just imagine: thousands of yahrzeit (memorial) candles representing voices of American Jews and our allies from across the country sharing our bold message. It will take all of us, acting together, to create a huge media moment. This could be the moment that convinces Congress they can’t stall justice.
A final thought: educator Pearl Mattenson posted this comment on my Facebook timeline in response to yesterday’s musical tribute:
Seeing the pics of Cheney Schwerner and Goodman while we at the same time old our breath for the 16 year old boys kidnapped in Israel quite the juxtaposition. In one case, young men actively putting their life on the line for a value they believed in and in the other young men simply trying to live their lives in accordance with values they hold dear. Let’s hope we won’t be memorializing them in 50 years.
Amen כן יהי רצון
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).