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March 26, 2015 2

50 Years Later: Bending the Arc of the Moral Universe Towards Justice

Fifty years ago yes­ter­day Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. addressed a crowd of 20,000 peo­ple, many of whom had marched for a week from Selma to Mont­gomery, Alabama to advo­cate for vot­ing rights.  Their arrival was tri­umphant, after the first attempt had left the non-violent marchers blood­ied and beaten—but not defeated—by police offi­cers in Selma two-and-a-half weeks before. As he stood on the steps of the capi­tol build­ing in Mont­gomery and reflected on the jour­ney of the civil rights move­ment, Dr. King rhetor­i­cally asked, “How long will it take?” and famously answered, “Not long, because the arc of the moral uni­verse is long, but it bends towards justice.” martin-luther-king-jr

As with any long arc, it is almost impos­si­ble to see progress from up close.  Each small, incre­men­tal change seems insignif­i­cant from that van­tage point.  Yet tak­ing a step back and look­ing at the tra­jec­tory over the past 50 years reveals how every small step has con­tributed to bend­ing the arc just a lit­tle bit fur­ther towards justice.

Today, the United States has the first African Amer­i­can pres­i­dent and there are almost seven times as many African Amer­i­can elected offi­cials as there were in 1970, when researchers first began track­ing the num­bers. The 2012 elec­tion marked the first elec­tion in which African Amer­i­cans voted at a higher rate than whites.  None of that would have been pos­si­ble with­out the Vot­ing Rights Act of 1965, which in turn would never have come to be with­out the tire­less, daily efforts of count­less indi­vid­u­als.  From the Free­dom Rid­ers who risked their lives to reg­is­ter vot­ers, to the peo­ple who fear­lessly faced police offi­cers with billy clubs and tear gas on the Edmund Pet­tus Bridge, to the advo­cates who lob­bied for pas­sage of the bill and the lawyers who argued in court for it to be upheld, each had a small part in bend­ing the arc.

In other areas of civil rights, too, each incre­men­tal step seems small up close but con­tributes to the greater tra­jec­tory.  Today, as the United States hope­fully stands on the eve of mar­riage equal­ity for all, it is clear that many small steps com­bined to get us here.  From the pro­test­ers at Stonewall to the seven cou­ples who brought a case in Mass­a­chu­setts that would ulti­mately make it the first state with mar­riage equal­ity, from the mem­bers of the LGBT com­mu­nity who came out when it was very dif­fi­cult to do so to their allies who spoke up and spoke out about LGBT rights, each per­son and action had a small part to play.  In the area of women’s rights, the women who con­vened a meet­ing in Seneca Falls to write the Dec­la­ra­tion of Rights and Sen­ti­ments, the suf­fragettes, the women who had careers long before it was socially accepted, those who coura­geously came for­ward to speak about sex­ual harass­ment, and the men who sup­ported equal pay for equal work all put small cracks in the glass ceil­ing.  Together, all the advo­cates, activists, allies, and peo­ple who sim­ply spoke up played a part in bend­ing the arc.

The lessons of Selma are about secur­ing the fun­da­men­tal right to vote for all and civil rights more broadly.  But they are also about what can hap­pen over time if each per­son plays a part in advanc­ing civil rights, speak­ing up for social jus­tice, and mov­ing the ball for­ward just the tini­est bit.  Fifty years after Selma, we are much fur­ther along the arc and much closer to a per­fect union, but each of us has a role to play every day in deter­min­ing the tra­jec­tory from here.

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July 3, 2014 0

From the Archives: ADL & the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Part 3

On June 10, 1964, a year after Pres­i­dent Kennedy first intro­duced the Civil Rights Act to the nation in a tele­vised address, a coali­tion of 44 Democ­rats and 27 Repub­li­cans voted for clo­ture, which lim­ited fur­ther debate and ended the 57-day fil­i­buster of the bill.

ADL had lob­bied for the bill in the months prior, includ­ing orga­niz­ing a meet­ing of 100 Jew­ish busi­ness, pro­fes­sional, and civic lead­ers from all over the United States, who met in Wash­ing­ton, DC, and urged their home-state Sen­a­tors to take action towards pas­sage of the bill.

In a press release react­ing to the Senate’s vote for clo­ture, ADL National Chair­man Dore Schary stated:

The vote on the clo­ture rule which now assures pas­sage of the Civil Rights Act is a vic­tory for all who love jus­tice and love an Amer­ica con­ceived in lib­erty. It is a defeat for no one except those who would pre­vent Amer­ica from achiev­ing its ulti­mate dream… For the thou­sands of civil rights lead­ers and for the coun­try as a whole, the final pas­sage of the Civil Rights Bill will pro­vide new oppor­tu­ni­ties, which they dare not squan­der, to help our Negro cit­i­zens achieve a full mea­sure of their rights as Americans.

The Civil Rights Act passed the Sen­ate with a vote of 73–27 on June 19.

On June 21, the same day on which three civil rights work­ers were kid­napped and mur­dered in Mis­sis­sippi, the Illi­nois Rally for Civil Rights was held at Chicago’s Sol­dier Field. The Anti-Defamation League was among the spon­sors of the rally, which fea­tured the Rev­erend Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. The rally was planned to urge pas­sage by the Sen­ate, but was ulti­mately anti-climactic, as pas­sage by the House was the immi­nent. ADL’s Mid­west Direc­tor A. Abott Rosen described the day:

There was no ques­tion of Jew­ish par­tic­i­pa­tion, there were no sus­pi­cions on the parts of blacks of Jews or other whites on this glo­ri­ous day. We didn’t take a head count of the num­ber of blacks and the num­ber of wSigning_of_Civil_Rights_Acthites present in Sol­diers Field that day, but to my eye, I would sug­gest that the group was almost equally divided.

On July 2, the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives voted by more than a two-thirds mar­gin (289–126) to adopt the Senate-passed ver­sion of the Civil Rights Act. That day, Pres­i­dent John­son signed the bill in a nation­ally broad­cast ceremony.

ADL’s National Pro­gram Direc­tor Oscar Cohen later recalled:

The ques­tion arose in ADL cir­cles fre­quently as to why ADL was so totally involved with the strug­gle for equal rights for blacks … First, we claimed, that no minor­ity was safe unless all minori­ties were and prej­u­dice and dis­crim­i­na­tion could not be cured in our soci­ety unless the cure related to all minori­ties … if civil rights laws were passed, such as fair employ­ment and fair hous­ing laws, they would at one stroke elim­i­nate dis­crim­i­na­tion against all groups, includ­ing Jews.

Today, ADL is help­ing to lead a very large coali­tion work­ing to fight dis­crim­i­na­tion, pro­mote equal­ity, and pro­tect the same vot­ing rights for which civil rights work­ers Michael Schw­erner, Andrew Good­man, and James Chaney gave their lives. The League is urg­ing broad sup­port for the Vot­ing Rights Amend­ment Act of 2014 (VRAA), which would cre­ate a new for­mula for pre-clearing vot­ing rights changes.

Fifty years later, ADL com­mem­o­rates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a para­mount step towards our core value “to secure jus­tice and fair treat­ment for all” and reaf­firms our ded­i­ca­tion to con­tinue the fight in the ongo­ing strug­gle for equality.

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July 2, 2014 0

From the Archives: ADL & the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Part 2

Civil_rights_leaders_WH_meeting_22_June_1963

Abbie Rowe. White House Pho­tographs. John F. Kennedy Pres­i­den­tial Library and Museum, Boston Civil rights lead­ers pose with Attor­ney Gen­eral Robert F. Kennedy and Vice Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son at a meet­ing at the White House on 22 June 1963. ADL National Direc­tor Ben­jamin Epstein stands to the right of Rev. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and Attor­ney Gen­eral Robert F. Kennedy

In Jan­u­ary 1964, two months after Pres­i­dent Kennedy’s death, ADL released its annual report on Con­gress and civil rights, declar­ing that because of Pres­i­dent Johnson’s “unmatched knowl­edge” of Con­gress, “it is now more pos­si­ble to pass” the Civil Rights Act that Pres­i­dent Kennedy had intro­duced in a tele­vised speech the pre­vi­ous year.

On Jan­u­ary 31 Sen­a­tor Edward M. Kennedy, in his first pub­lic appear­ance in New York since the death of his brother, addressed the 51st annual meet­ing of ADL. Sen­a­tor Kennedy told the audi­ence that the civil rights bill “will pass the House unweak­ened” and that only a fil­i­buster could stop a Sen­ate major­ity “ready and will­ing to vote for it.” Ten days later, the House passed the bill by a vote of 290 to 130 and sent it to the Sen­ate, where it met a filibuster.

Soon after the fil­i­buster began, Sen­a­tors Abra­ham Ribi­coff and Jacob Jav­its received ADL’s 1964 Human Rights Award. They spoke about the bill in their accep­tance speech dur­ing the April 9 cer­e­mony, express­ing con­cern about the “‘so-called white back­lash’ on civil rights in the North” and warn­ing that “pas­sage of the Civil Rights Bill would solve no prob­lems unless ‘the ulti­mate respon­si­bil­ity for civil rights’ is accepted by indi­vid­ual Americans.’”

In late April, ADL National Chair­man Dore Schary announced plans to con­vene a meet­ing of 120 Jew­ish busi­ness, pro­fes­sional, and civil lead­ers from all over the United States “to sound an alarm that time was run­ning out” and “to urge that the Bill then under debate be passed with­out weak­en­ing dele­tions and amend­ments.” Said Schary of the Wash­ing­ton, DC, event:

“This meet­ing in the nation’s cap­i­tal is an all-out effort by a group of lead­ing cit­i­zens to aid their coun­try in what they con­sider to be the most crit­i­cal moment in one of the gravest crises in the past cen­tury. They believe that if the Civil Rights Act is not passed soon, the nation faces dan­ger­ous dis­or­der in the com­ing sum­mer months.”

The group, com­prised of judges, munic­i­pal offi­cials, per­form­ers in the arts, finan­cial and indus­trial lead­ers from 30 states, first con­ferred with Admin­is­tra­tion and Sen­ate spokes­men, and then called or met with their home-state leg­is­la­tors. The group also vis­ited Arling­ton National Ceme­tery to “pay their respects to the mem­ory of Pres­i­dent Kennedy and leave a flo­ral spray at the graveside.”

ADL National Direc­tor Ben­jamin R. Epstein later recalled the meet­ing in Not the Work of a Day, not­ing its suc­cess: “[B]y jiminy, it worked, and it was because it was an intel­li­gent approach to lob­by­ing, a per­fectly legit­i­mate way of achiev­ing a pur­pose in a demo­c­ra­tic soci­ety.” Min­nesota Sen­a­tor Hubert Humphrey wrote to say: “I am for­ever grate­ful … for the ADL’s visit to Wash­ing­ton on behalf of the Civil Rights Bill. The busi­ness lead­ers who gave of their valu­able time … per­formed an indis­pen­si­ble ser­vice. I know from con­ver­sa­tions with many Sen­a­tors that their vis­its were truly effective.”

To be continued…

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