50 Years after the VRA, Sh’nat Ha-Evel for Michael Brown
Last weekend marked one year since Michael Brown was shot and killed in the street by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, MO. As we take this moment to reflect on the past year, I am reminded of the Jewish tradition’s unique way of coping with death, to help mourners gradually reenter into normal life after the death of a loved one.
In the first week after a loved one passes, mourners are obligated to sit shiva, Hebrew for "seven. During these seven days, the mourners’ immediate community cares for them, visits them in their home and brings them food, so the bereaved family and friends can focus on their spiritual and emotional needs. In the seven days after Michael Brown was killed, the Ferguson community protested, rallied and raised awareness of the injustice that had been done, so that his family could begin to cope with his loss. In a way, the community sat shiva for Michael Brown; not in their homes, but by taking to the streets.
The next stage of mourning is called shloshim, the first 30 days. During shloshim, mourners return to work but are not completely back in the world – they refrain from parties and other forms of public entertainment, and recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer for mourner’s, daily. For Michael Brown, shloshim was characterized by communities and cities across the country – particularly communities of color and their allies – expressing their outrage and sadness by marching through the streets and demanding that #BlackLivesMatter.
Traditionally, the mourning period ends after shloshim except for those who are mourning for their parents, who will continue to say the Mourner’s Kaddish daily for 11 months or a full year. During this first year, sh’nat ha-evel, mourners are encouraged to ease back into life fully, while honoring and remembering their loved ones by standing for the daily Kaddish. For Michael Brown, our mourning period did not end after one month. Our nation continues to struggle to find meaning in his death, and find ways to eliminate the systems of oppression that allowed for Michael Brown to be shot and killed, all while more and more Black men and women die at the hands of police.
As we approach the end of this first year since Michael Brown’s death, Jewish tradition tells us to mark the site of the grave with some sort of monument, and to hold an unveiling ceremony at the grave site. Today, our country desperately needs an unveiling. We need our lawmakers to unveil legislation that can address the structural racism that afflicts our communities.
Coincidentally, this week marks the anniversary of another important moment in the story of our country’s fight for civil rights. On August 6, 1965, after years of hard work and organizing by the African American community and their allies, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act (VRA) into law. The VRA was one of the most important tools to protect voting rights, prohibiting discriminatory voting practices like poll taxes and literacy tests.
For almost 50 years, the VRA (which was drafted in part in the RAC’s conference room) helped protect the electorate and ensure access to the voting booth, until June 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby v. Holder. More than two years later, Congress still has yet to act to repair the damage done to the VRA in Shelby. While we recognize the VRA’s 50th birthday, we cannot truly celebrate its achievements because its work is not yet done. We must understand that too many American citizens, primarily low income Americans and people of color, still face obstacles when trying to vote. The results of voter suppression are easily identifiable, especially in places like Ferguson, MO. In Ferguson when Michael Brown was killed, the mayor, city manager, five of the six City Council members, the police chief and 50 of the 53 members of the police force were white, despite the population being two-thirds African American. In fact, the ACLU sued the school board at the end of last year under the VRA, arguing that “the way its members are elected blocks minority voters from fully participating in the political process.”
While ensuring the unencumbered voting rights of all Americans will not bring back Michael Brown, and alone will not end the cycle of police brutality that our country is struggling to end, it is an important first step in acknowledging the humanity, dignity and equality of all Americans. It sends the message that Black lives do matter, and that black voices matter, especially when it comes time to elect leaders who will make decisions that affect all aspects of our lives.
As we observe these two anniversaries this week and say kaddish for Michael Brown, I hope that you will join me in urging Congress to act and pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act to protect the votes of all Americans once and for all.