In March of 1965, the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama shook with the force of thousands of feet. Black people and white people, religious leaders and common citizens, activists and passionate allies linked arms and marched to Selma from Montgomery, Alabama. Although the inciting incident for the march was the fatal attack of Jimmie Lee Jackson, a nonviolent Black protester in Marion, Alabama, by white segregationists, the simmering anger among the marchers had been there for a long time. Their anger had been building since the time that Black people couldn’t vote, couldn’t go to white schools or restaurants, were relegated to the lowest levels of their society by purely racist beliefs. Led by the famous civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. who pioneered the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, they marched to end institutionalized racial injustices in American society. And marching right next to Martin Luther King Jr. was Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish, Polish-American rabbi. Having been deported by the Nazis from Germany in 1938, he immigrated to America where his teachings became increasingly focused on race, religion, and equality. And though he marched arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King Jr. to end racial inequality in America, they both, along with all of the marchers, had a very specific goal in mind: to end racial inequality in voting, and make Selma, Alabama, a focus of Black voter registration.
The fight for voting equality has been an issue in America since its founding. It was only in 1870, almost 100 years after the creation of America, that Black men were given the right to vote. Although in many Northern states this law was protected, in former Confederate states local courts often rescinded their right to vote. Voting laws were restricted further with poll taxes to be paid two years before any given election, voter intimidation, literacy tests of complicated sections of the US Constitution, and other malicious attempts to suppress the Black vote. The infamous “grandfather clause” restricted voting to those who could vote or whose male ancestors were allowed to vote before 1867, denying almost all Black men their voting rights. Jim Crow laws, local and state statues that enforced racial segregation and inequality, continued to have a negative effect on Black voting throughout the 20th century. Even in the North in the 1900s, some states required Black Americans to own property before they could vote. As a result of the intimidation and racial discrimination towards voters, less than 3% of voting-age Black men and women were registered to vote in 1940. Therefore, they had little to no say in their communities, did not hold elected office, and were essentially denied their most basic rights as US citizens.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s attempted to right the wrong created by generations of American lawmakers, and eventually brought into creation the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed the discriminatory and prejudicial voting practices adopted to suppress Black voting. Since then, many laws have been enacted to make voting easier and more convenient for American citizens, so as to include as many people as possible in the creation of a true democracy. For example, the 2020 elections were the first in decades where no state barred its citizens with felony convictions from voting. However, recent laws passed by states, including Georgia, have restricted access to voting in states with heavily Black populations. Restrictions included lessening the amount of time that voters have to request absentee ballots, strict ID requirements for the request of absentee ballots, limiting the amount of ballot drop boxes available to voters, making mobile voting centers illegal, banning third-party groups from offering food or water to voters standing in line at the polls, and not allowing voting to occur on Sundays, a day in which Black Americans traditionally voted after church. These, along with many other restrictive and logic-defying propositions, filled bills that were passed through state legislatures. Though the legislators who created these laws continue to defend them, it cannot be denied that these many legal nuances and obfuscations only serve to limit the ability of voters to vote safely, confidently, and easily.
Abraham Joshua Heschel believed very deeply in the Biblical idea that all men are created in the image of God. He saw the spark of the divine in every person, and that belief of equality, of human divinity, spurred him to fight for the rights of those with whom he had little in common. Our Jewish tradition commands us to fight for those whose rights have been taken away, those who are being oppressed in our society, as if they were one of our own. Abraham Joshua Heschel and countless other Jewish allies took it upon themselves to do just that, but the fight isn’t over. Even when our own rights aren’t being taken away, Jewish history commands us to not be bystanders to injustice.
Voting is the most essential part of our democracy. It’s the greatest equalizer in American society. In modern life, it may be hard to fulfill the Jewish value of not “oppressing the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We may not always have the means or the ability to donate to impactful organizations, welcome struggling people into our homes, feed the hungry and clothe the poor. However, voting is easy. It is a simple act of personal empowerment to which every person is entitled. Although Jews may not be the ones who are negatively affected by these laws, Jewish allyship in voter registration is a simple act of “seeing the divine” in others, as Rabbi Heschel might say. We have a long way to go before we are able to sit back, and look at a country free of biases or institutionalized prejudice, but ensuring that every American can vote easily and confidently is one way in which we can make America just a little better. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reverend Martin Luther King have taught America, it is only in fighting for one another that we can move forward into a better future.