Jewish tradition observes that “the memory of the righteous is for a blessing.”
The three young men murdered in Mississippi during Freedom Summer would have—should have—been senior citizens now. Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman should have been part of the many Civil Rights retrospectives published and put on this year. They should have been interviewed for history books. They should have attended a 50th reunion this past weekend honoring their work at the invitation of James Young, the first African-American mayor of Philadelphia, Miss.
But instead, their memories are honored as individuals so committed to the values this country was built upon that they gave their own lives for the civil rights of others.
As members of the Congress of Racial Equality, Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman were working for the basic right of voting—the right that lies at the core of our country’s democratic system. For this act, they were cruelly murdered by a group of men that could not accept the idea of allowing all men and women to have a voice in our country. Some of those charged in the murders were even members of the local sheriff’s office and police department—the very men expected to protect their fellow citizens.
These heinous crimes were committed 50 years ago, on June 21st, 1964. It took a long time for justice to be served in the proceedings against the bigots who committed the crimes; the state of Mississippi did not take action against the perpetrators until 2005. Perhaps for some Americans, the eventual conviction of the leader of the lynch mob brought a sense of closure to the blemish on our country’s history.
But these three murders were not about a single crime. The deaths of Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman still have at least three lessons to teach us.
The first is the value of fighting the good fight. We rightly honor our men and women in uniform for defending our country, mostly outside its borders. At least as important are citizens willing to stand up for the freedoms guaranteed to all of us by the Constitution and subsequent legislation.
The second is the value of a life. From an individual point of view, these three young men likely would have been delighted to live lives of relatively anonymous productivity—learning, loving, working, and playing. Andrew Goodman was just 20 years old when he lost his life. We can only imagine what a full and prosperous life he would have lived were he not taken from the world. But collectively, we also must recognize that when potential is lost, community and society as a whole lose as well. We have the wherewithal to help the James Chaneys of the world realize their potential.
The third is the value of their noble cause. Schwerner and his friends were resolute in their mission. It was morally right for them to work for voting rights in 1964. It was morally right for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to guarantee that access where it was denied. And it is morally right for the Voting Rights Act Amendment of 2014 (VRAA) to update those guarantees.
In the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, The Supreme Court laid the groundwork for Congress to modernize the 1965 Voting Rights Act. It is now up to Congress to do the right thing and pass the VRAA.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has at last begun the process to move forward with this crucial legislation, and Chairman Leahy (D-VT) has provided necessary leadership and championed the issue. Last week, the committee held a hearing to explore a Voting Rights Act Amendment. I sincerely hope that the House Judiciary Committee will follow their counterparts’ lead, with the whole of Congress to follow.
It is difficult to imagine any rational American considering voting rights protections to be objectionable. Already this year, public outcry over discrimination by a sports team owner and a rancher was near-universal. The disenfranchisement of American citizens from this most basic of civil rights ought to demand the same outrage by people of integrity, just as it did when three young activists were cruelly taken from the world fifty years ago.
I have no idea if Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman lived the kinds of exemplary lives that would qualify them as righteous. But they died unjust deaths in pursuit of a righteous cause. Can we, in their memory, do any less than continue that pursuit?
Rabbi Jack Moline is the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
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