56 Years After Selma: Still Marching for Voting Rights and Freedom in the Season of Liberation

March 5, 2021Josh Burg

This weekend, we observe the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. On March 7, 1965, a 25-year-old John Lewis who had recently founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), led a group of 600 activists hoping to peacefully march from Selma to Montgomery to demand voting rights legislation from the governor of Alabama.

However, as they crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge, there were met by a wall of sheriff deputies. The marchers were forced back over the bridge to Selma as they were brutally beaten by batons and choked on a cloud of tear gas. Dozens of peaceful marchers were injured including John Lewis, who suffered a fractured skull and scars he would bear the rest of his life.

The police brutality of Bloody Sunday shocked Americans across the country and elevated the issue of voting rights onto the national stage. Just a week later, President Johnson sent voting rights legislation to Congress, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and a few months later President Johnson would sign it into law.

The anniversary of Bloody Sunday comes as the Jewish community prepares to celebrate Passover, our season of liberation. In just a few weeks, we will remember our ancestor’s exodus from Egypt, a journey from a narrow and oppressive place to freedom and liberation.

As the Israelites were fleeing Egypt, they encountered a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in their pursuit of freedom. In front of them was the Sea of Reeds and behind them was Pharaoh and his army. Caught between seemingly immovable objects, the Israelites cried out, with some desiring to give up and return to bondage and oppression. But then one man stepped forward to reveal that there was indeed a choice to be had—a choice between oppression and freedom. Nachshon ben Aminadav waded into the water to the point that he nearly disappeared beneath the surface. At the last second, when it seemed as though all was truly lost, the Sea of Reeds split in half. If it had not been for the bravery of Nachshon, the path to freedom would have never been revealed to the Israelites.

The Passover story is not just a source of reflection and hope for the Jewish community. In fact, years before the march from Selma to Montgomery, a young Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a sermon in Montgomery, Alabama in which he said, “the story of the Exodus, the story of the flight of the Hebrew people from the bondage of Egypt, through the wilderness and finally, to the Promised Land… is something of the story of every people struggling for freedom. It is the first story of man’s explicit quest for freedom.” Dr. King’s keen understanding that we are all interconnected in the pursuit of freedom and justice helped galvanize people like John Lewis to join the Civil Rights Movement.

We are grateful for the historic bravery of Congressman John Lewis, Dr. King, and many others who have sacrificed so much to show us the path forward to voting rights and lasting freedom for all Americans. Without those modern day Nachshon’s of the Civil Rights Movement we may have never seen the critical voting rights reforms and protections which continue to benefit us to this day. Indeed, the 2020 election represented the highest voter turnout in over 120 years. This was possible, in no small part, thanks to voting rights champions like John Lewis.

However, today, we find our democracy and the right to vote in a similar position to that of the Israelites on the banks of the Sea of Reeds. In 2013, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County v. Holder stripped the “preclearance formula” of the Voting Rights Act. This formula was critical to the protection of voting rights as it allowed the Department of Justice to review and block restrictive changes to election laws in states and jurisdictions with a history of voter suppression.

In the wake of the Shelby v. Holder decision, we have seen a wave of restrictive voting measures pass into law. This trend has become particularly pronounced since the 2020 election cycle. In just the last few months, 253 bills that would restrict voting rights have been introduced in 43 states. Many of these bills are in states that were covered by the preclearance formula of the Voting Rights Act including Arizona, Texas, and Georgia.

As we mark the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the first since Congressman Lewis’ passing, and prepare to enter the Jewish season of liberation, voting rights and our democracy are under threat. This moment requires that our elected officials muster the courage of Nachshon, Lewis, and King to part the seas of restriction and lead us on a path to greater freedom. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act would restore the preclearance formula of the Voting Rights Act and allow the Department of Justice to block and remove restrictive and repressive voting laws.

The time to act is now: Urge Congress to restore voting rights by supporting the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.

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