On Wednesday, the U.S. Congress awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor given by that body, to the nearly 8,000 “foot soldiers” who participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery to promote voting rights in 1965. Reverend Frederick D. Reese, the leader of the voting rights movement in Selma at the time, joined Representative John Lewis to accept the award in a ceremony featuring leaders from both sides of the aisle.
The awarding of the Congressional Gold Medal to Reese, Lewis and others who participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery is an act deserving of praise. The 8,000 individuals risked their personal safety in order to ensure that all Americans would be guaranteed equal rights under the law, regardless of race or ethnicity. The voting rights activities in Selma, and throughout the country, were instrumental in ultimately securing passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the farthest-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation in our nation’s history. Furthermore, Congress has chosen to recognize the important contributions made to our society by not only the national leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, but also the unsung heroes, like Rev. Reese, who were no less dedicated or impactful despite not appearing in history textbooks.
As we commemorate this important milestone, we should also remember that much work remains to be done to accomplish the goals of the Selma march. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thereby permitting states and counties with long histories of disenfranchisement and voter suppression to pass new restrictions. Across the country, millions of voters will face voter ID requirements, shorter voting periods and other prohibitive measures for the first time this presidential election.
Barriers to the voting booth are a violation of our basic values as Americans and as Reform Jews. As we are taught, “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a). Policies that mete out the fundamental right to vote differentially based on race, class, age or ability, as many of these new restrictions have been shown to do, violate our fundamental belief that each individual ought to have an equal opportunity to determine who represents us in government.
Another way to honor the achievements of the Selma marchers is to ensure that their by restoring and strengthening the protections of the Voting Rights Act. Call on Congress to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 2869/S. 1619) and thereby affirm that equal access to the ballot is truly reflected in our laws.