After participating in the historic voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965, Rabbi Abramson Joshua Heschel famously said:
“For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
That march played a significant role in prompting Congress to enact the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA) – perhaps the most important and effective civil rights legislation ever passed. In the half century since then, the VRA has secured and safeguarded the right to vote for millions of Americans. Its success in eliminating discriminatory barriers to full civic participation and in advancing equal political participation at all levels of government is undeniable.
Sometimes legs pray.
And sometimes legs carry you to Washington DC to demand progress toward justice and fair treatment for all.
Today, fifty years after the passage of the VRA, and two years after a deeply troubling Supreme Court decision that essentially gutted the heart of the legislation — marchers are on their way to Washington to demand voting rights protections again. The NAACP has organized America’s Journey for Justice, which started in Selma on August 1. The Anti-Defamation League is one of the supporting organizations for the 1000-mile march, as we had supported the original Selma to Montgomery march. Then-ADL National Director Ben Epstein wrote,
“We walked together—more than 3,000 Americans: Negroes and whites, ministers, rabbis, Catholic nuns, students, representatives of organizations, those who belonged to no group other than the human race—all in peaceful demonstration against blind violence, in ‘gigantic witness’ to the constitutionally guaranteed right of all citizens to register and vote.”
Journey to Justice culminates in an Advocacy Day on the Capital Hill on September 16. Marchers and their supporters will have dozens of meetings with Members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The principal focal point for the lobbying will be the need to address the devastating impact of Shelby County v. Holder, a 2013 Supreme Court decision which gutted a key provision of the VRA, dramatically limiting its effectiveness and reach.
Last November – the first major election since Shelby County – there were new restrictions on voting in 15 states, endangering voting rights for hundreds of thousands of Americans. From voter ID laws that threaten to disenfranchise African Americans, Latinos, students and elderly voters, to cuts to early voting and onerous requirements for voter registration, the right to vote is in peril.
The proper response to the Shelby County decision is the bipartisan Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 (S. 1659/H.R. 2867). The VRAA reasserts appropriate federal oversight over efforts to change state and local voting laws and provides additional safeguards for voting.
Since, 1965 reaffirming the nation’s commitment to full voting rights for all has never been controversial. Each time the VRA came up for reauthorization it has received overwhelming, bipartisan Congressional support. The last time Congress extended the VRA, in 2006, it did so after an exhaustive hearings on voting discrimination and the impact of the VRA – resulting in thousands of pages of documentation. The legislation passed overwhelmingly: 390 to 33 in the House of Representatives and 98-0 in the Senate.
As we have commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) this summer, we have been reminded just how far we have come – how impactful the VRA has been in ensuring the rights of all Americans to have their say in our democracy. Journey for Justice marchers and their supporters are demonstrating that Congress must do more than merely commemorate anniversaries of historic civil rights victories. They must act. Now is the time for Congress to act to restore the protections of the VRA and secure the right to vote for all Americans.