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Voting Rights: A Civil Rights Struggle Revived

Voting Rights: A Civil Rights Struggle Revived

Over the last year, many Americans have spoke against the voter suppression laws that have swept the nation, state by state. But there are few who can speak with more passion or heart than those who actively organized, rallied and marched during the Civil Rights Movement to fight for expanded rights, including voting rights, for all. One of these leaders is Representative John Lewis (D-GA), who, 50 years ago, put his body on the line to defeat Jim Crow laws that blocked African Americans and other citizens of color from accessing the polls and exercising their rights as Americans.

Rep. Lewis delivered an impassioned speech last week on the House floor after a fellow Representative from Georgia, Paul C. Broun (R-GA), offered an amendment that would have barred the Department of Justice from using any money to enforce Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (historic legislation, I might add, which was drafted in the RAC’s conference room by a coalition that included rabbis and other Jewish leaders). Section 5 requires the Justice Department to “pre-clear” new election laws in Georgia and other covered states, counties, and districts to ensure the new rules do not discriminate based on race, color or language. It is specifically designed to prevent minority voters from being disenfranchised – which is exactly the impact of the new voter ID laws, whether this is their original intent or not. When offering his amendment on the House floor, Rep. Broun – like many lawmakers in states that have passed voter ID requirements – argued that the Voting Rights Act is outdated and had become “antiquated.” Rep. Lewis fought back and denounced the amendment with a fiery, impassioned speech, recalling the Civil Rights Movement and the sacrifices made to expand the right to vote during this era. Click here to view the full video.

“It is hard and difficult and almost unbelievable that any member, but especially a member from the state of Georgia, would come and offer such an amendment . . . It's shameful that you would come here tonight and say to the Department of Justice that you must not use one penny, one cent, one dime, one dollar to carry out the mandate of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act." “People died for the right to vote -- friends of mine, colleagues of mine.  I speak out against this amendment."

As Jews as well as Americans, it is our responsibility to play an active role in our community and choosing its leaders. Rabbi Yitzhak taught that "A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted" (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 55a). Given the Jewish community’s historical role in the struggle for civil rights, allegations of voter disenfranchisement and evidence of higher numbers of disqualified votes for citizens of color compel us to speak out. It is our duty to ensure that all citizens are afforded the opportunity to vote and have their votes counted. In the end, Rep. Broun withdrew his amendment and apologized to Rep. Lewis. Personal stories like Rep. Lewis’ humanize and personalize the impact of voter ID laws. Of course, these are not just stories of the past – and unless these laws are reversed, millions of Americans may be blocked from casting their vote in the November elections. Will you have to show an ID at the polls in November? Is your state considering such a law? Speak up and let your officials know that you oppose voter ID and other voter suppression measures in your state. Use this map for more information on the status of your states’ voting laws. Image courtesy of Huffington Post.

Published: 5/14/2012

Categories: Social Justice, Civil Rights
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