This week my wife and I went to see the movie “Selma” in anticipation of my speaking about it this past Shabbat. Putting aside the various controversies it has spawned (It’s portrayal of LBJ, the absence of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the Oscars snubs), it is a powerful piece of filmmaking that must be seen and is deserving of every accolade it has received. More importantly, it beautifully portrays the emotional impact of the times and the incredible strength and courage of those who championed the fight for civil rights of the 1960’s. You walk out of the theater feeling the power of that seminal moment in American history and inspired to continue the fight for justice for all people that Dr. King began.
Some of the movie’s most powerful moments are also its most visual shocking: the bombing in Birmingham, the beating to death of a minister, the rampage unleashed on the bridge as police and white extremists violently attack the marchers on the bridge. They are scenes that sear themselves into your memory, giving a taste of the horrors that turned the tide of American opinion some 50 years ago.
But it was one of the quieter moments that affected me in a way that has stayed with me even days later. Strategizing with his partners in a cramped living room, Dr. King asked for their help in determining the focus of the voting rights law should be. Obstacles placed in the way of black voters such as qualification tests, poll taxes and voucher laws were discussed. Finally, with a bitter edge in his voice one aide declares (and I am paraphrasing from memory), “We need to eliminate the voucher laws, so that we can pay the poll tax, so that we can take the test so that we can have the chance to be denied the right to vote!” This scene lays out the barriers to voting faced by black voters in a way that is both of its time and, sadly of our own day as well.
At the end of the movie Selma, the epilogue shows what happened to each of the main characters after the March. What is missing in that epilogue is an explanation of what happened to the Voting Rights Act in the years after it’s passage and that is a story to which we who are committed to justice must pay attention.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 eliminated the obstacles that denied the right to vote to many Southern Black Voters. It was the key victory brought about by the march on Selma and has served to protect the voting rights of many Americans ever since, that is until last year’s midterm elections.
As the Religious Action Center notes: “On June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby v. Holder to invalidate parts of the Voting Rights Act. The Court struck down Section 4(b), which contained a formula requiring certain areas with a history of disenfranchisement problems to seek pre-clearance from the Department of Justice when making changes to election procedures. In the aftermath of the Court’s misguided decision, many states previously covered by the invalidated “preclearance” formula have tested the extent to which they can legally limit citizens’ access to the ballot box, by introducing, and in some cases passing, restrictive voting laws. These laws often have discriminatory effects on racial minorities, the poor, the elderly, and students.“
Once again, the least powerful among our society are being denied the right to vote using obstacles placed in their way by those who wish to silence their voices. In fact, the presence of such obstacles was so extreme during the recent midterm elections that the Election Protection Hotline, a
phone line used by voters to report problems and receive support,
reported more than 18,000 calls by 8 pm – a
nearly 40 percent increase from 2010.
Last January, the Voting Rights Amendment Act was introduced into Congress with the aim of undoing the damage done to the Voting Rights Act by Shelby v. Holder. Unfortunately it was not passed in the last Congress. Plans are underway to introduce it in the the new Congress where it, admittedly, faces a more difficult road to passage. But as Dr. King’s example reminds us, we dare not stay silent no matter how great the challenge.
Let us use this 50th anniversary of the March in Selma to push our Representatives to stand up on behalf of equality and justice and push for the passage of the VRAA. So much that was fought for then needs our recommitment today. Let it not be said that in our complacency born of victories past, we have taken our eyes off the prize. May the legacy of Dr. King, and those who marched with him, continue to inspire us act in ways that will let freedom ring throughout the land for all people today.