In a Summer of Major Civil Rights Anniversaries, a Rabbi Calls on Congress to Honor Martyrs’ Work

Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman died unjust deaths in pursuit of a righteous cause.

An FBI poster asking for infomation on the missing civil rights activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in the summer of 1964. 
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Rabbi Jack Moline
July 1, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

Rabbi Jack Moline is the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. Courtesy photo

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.

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.


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