“The success of the civil rights movement in raising the consciousness of America was made possible by the coalition we had with the American Jewish community. People gave their very lives.”
Those striking words were spoken on June 5 by civil rights icon Clarence Jones, former adviser to Martin Luther King Jr. and co-author of the “I Have a Dream” speech, at an event in San Jose convened by the Anti-Defamation League commemorating the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
Indeed, the Jewish community played an outsize role in the civil rights movement. An estimated 90 percent of civil rights lawyers working in the South were Jewish, as were nearly one-third of the Freedom Summer volunteers who traveled to the South as part of Freedom Summer, a massive, 10-week campaign to register African Americans to vote and to promote their constitutionally guaranteed rights.
At the time, severe institutionalized racism in the South meant mass disenfranchisement. In Mississippi, less than 5 percent of half a million black adults were registered to vote, and in eight out of 13 of the state’s mostly black counties, not a single black citizen had ever voted.
Among the Freedom Summer volunteers were Andrew Goodman, 20, and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, 24, two Jewish students from New York, who, along with their Mississippi-born African American comrade James Chaney, 21, would pay the ultimate price in the struggle for civil rights. Fifty years ago, they were brutally murdered by local law enforcement and members of the Ku Klux Klan.
The murders have come to symbolize the coalition between African Americans and Jews, and between oppressed minorities and people of conscience more generally. It also helped shock the nation out of complacency and marked a turning point in the struggle to ensure voting rights by reframing the struggle for civil rights as one of universal import. Expanding the meaning of the struggle, noted Jones, was recognized as the only means by which the civil rights movement would achieve sweeping change.
And it did just that. Within a year, Congress would enact the Voting Rights Act. In 1965 alone, nearly 250,000 African Americans registered to vote as a result of the law, and within 20 years , the number of African American legislators elected to office in the former Confederate states increased from 3 to 176.
Yet half a century later, the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder immobilized key provisions of this landmark legislation, dramatically setting back the struggle to end discrimination in voting. After the Shelby decision struck down the formula to determine which states and local jurisdictions require federal oversight for election changes, a number of states immediately enacted laws that will have the effect of disenfranchising large swaths of America’s citizenry, mainly African Americans and other minorities.
Just hours after the Shelby ruling, for example, Texas put into effect a previously blocked voter ID law that would disproportionately affect racial minorities. Alabama, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia — which would, prior to Shelby, have been required to pre-clear any changes to their voting laws — introduced their own voter ID laws, which threaten to disenfranchise minority voters. North Carolina eliminated a week of early voting, again disproportionately impacting African Americans, 70 percent of whom utilized early voting in the 2008 and 2012 elections.
Securing that most fundamental cornerstone of our democracy, the right to vote, will require people of conscience to join in solidarity. In the words of Jones, we must “take the baton of that glorious, noble and moral coalition of black and white religious, labor and civil rights leaders who ignited the conscience of America in 1963 and the summer of 1964 to end racial segregation and guarantee the right to vote, and say to our country, ‘No! Not this time! Not again! We simply will not stand idly and silently by and have the memory of the summer of 1964 desecrated and defiled by 2014 efforts to limit our right to vote. Not now nor ever!”
June 22 marked the 50th yahrzeit of the martyred civil rights heroes Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. Let us honor their memory and sacrifice by rededicating ourselves to advancing the cause of civil rights for all.
The Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 would protect the right to vote by creating a new formula for federal oversight of any changes to voting laws at the state level. The Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to hold a hearing this week on the proposed amendment. Please join Clarence Jones, ADL and civil rights leaders across the country to urge Congress to protect voting rights by passing the VRAA. Visit the ADL advocacy center (www.adl.org/action-center) to take action and learn more.
Vlad Khaykin is a refugee from the former Soviet Union and serves in San Francisco as associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Pacific Region.