J.J. Goldberg

How Jews Are Honoring 3 Civil Rights Martyrs

By J.J. Goldberg

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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:

From ADL:

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


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