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B'shelach 2022

Rabbi Robin Nafshi

As I mentioned at the beginning of our service, this week we celebrate a very special Shabbat – Shabbat Shirah, or the Shabbat of Song. The name comes from text in our Torah portion – the text of the prayer Mi Chamocha. As the Israelites walked through the divided sea, they sang the words, “Who is like You, O God, among the gods who are worshipped? Who is like You, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, working wonders?” So important are these words, this prayer, and most importantly, the story of our people’s redemption, that Mi Chamocha became a central part of our worship. Moreover, that God redeemed the people this one time became the event that no doubt saved Jews throughout history. When tragedies struck – expulsions, accusations, and murders – our people turned to the story of the Exodus from Egypt. “God redeemed us once,” they said. “God will redeem us again; we don’t know when or how, but we have faith it will happen.”

Redemption is a story for all peoples in all times. For people of faith, that redemption will come at the hand of God. For secular activists, it will come at the hand of righteous indignation. For those of us who identify as both, it will come from the place where God and people meet.

This weekend, we celebrate not only Shabbat Shirah, but also Martin Luther King Day. While the Israelites sought their freedom by crossing the Reed Sea, Dr. King, along with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference sought their freedom by crossing the Alabama River. For our people, the waters parted. For the Black activists in Selma, liberation was sought on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Much of what follows was found on the website of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute of Stanford University.

On January 2, 1965, Dr. King many other activists were working on the voting rights campaign in Selma where, in spite of repeated registration attempts by local blacks, only two percent were on the voting rolls.

The activism in Selma and nearby Marion, Alabama, progressed with mass arrests but little violence for the first month. That changed in February, however, when police attacks against nonviolent demonstrators increased. On the night of February 18, Alabama state troopers joined local police breaking up a march in Marion. In the ensuing melee, a state trooper shot Jimmie Lee Jackson, a 26-year-old church deacon from Marion, as he attempted to protect his mother from the trooper’s nightstick. Jackson died eight days later in a Selma hospital.

In response to Jackson’s death, activists in Selma and Marion set out on March 7 to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. While King was in Atlanta, his colleagues Hosea Williams and John Lewis led the march. The marchers made their way through Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they faced a blockade of state troopers and local lawmen, who ordered the marchers to disperse. When they did not, the troopers and lawmen advanced. Cheered on by white onlookers, they attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas. Mounted police chased retreating marchers and continued to beat them.

Television coverage of “Bloody Sunday,” as the event became known, triggered national outrage. Lewis, who was severely beaten on the head, said: “I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam – I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo – I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa and can’t send troops to Selma.”

That evening, Dr. King began a blitz of telegrams and public statements “calling on religious leaders from all over the nation to join us on Tuesday in our peaceful, nonviolent march for freedom.” While King and Selma activists made plans to retry the march two days later, a federal judge notified their attorney that he intended to issue a restraining order prohibiting the march until at least March 11, and President Johnson pressured King to call off the march until a federal court order could provide protection to the marchers.

Forced to consider whether to disobey the pending court order, after consulting late into the night and early morning with other civil rights leaders and the deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, King proceeded to the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the afternoon of March 9. He led more than 2,000 marchers, including hundreds of clergy who had answered King’s call, to the site of Sunday’s attack, then stopped and asked them to kneel and pray. After prayers they rose and turned the march back to Selma, avoiding another confrontation with state troopers and skirting the issue of whether to obey the court order.

The restraint gained support from President Johnson, who issued a public statement: “Americans everywhere join in deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated when they sought to dramatize their deep and sincere interest in attaining the precious right to vote.” President Johnson promised to introduce a voting rights bill to Congress within a few days.

On March 15, President Johnson addressed Congress, identifying himself with the demonstrators in Selma in a televised address: “Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”

The following day, Selma activists submitted a detailed march plan to a local court. The judge approved their march and issued an injunction forbidding Governor Wallace and local law enforcement from harassing or threatening marchers. A day later, President Johnson submitted voting rights legislation to Congress.

The march left Selma on March 21. Protected by hundreds of federalized Alabama National Guardsmen and FBI agents, the marchers covered between seven and 17 miles per day. Camping at night in supporters’ yards, they were entertained by celebrities.

Limited by Judge Johnson’s order to 300 marchers over a stretch of two-lane highway, the number of demonstrators swelled on the last day to 25,000.

During the final rally, held on the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, King proclaimed: “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man.”

On August 6, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Recalling “the outrage of Selma,” Johnson called the right to vote “the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”

A few days later, King noted that “Montgomery led to the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960; Birmingham inspired the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and Selma produced the voting rights legislation of 1965.”

And here we are, nearly 57 years later, and voting rights is again in the news. A bill that again responds to the disenfranchisement of millions of voters, and which can be described as “deeply partisan,” and likely to fail, would, among other provisions:

  • Make Election Day a federal holiday. 
  • Allow online, automatic, and same-day voter registration. 
  • Allow a minimum of 15 days of early voting, including at least two weekends.
  • Allow no-excuse mail voting with ample access to ballot drop boxes and ballot tracking, as well as mail delivery.
  • Require states to accept a wide range of forms of non-photographic identification in places where ID is required to vote.  
  • Count eligible votes on provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct. 
  • Restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people convicted of felonies. 
  • Impose strict regulations on voter list maintenance that make it hard for states to remove eligible voters from the rolls.
  • Include the Right to Vote Act, which creates an affirmative right to vote in federal law.
  • Prohibit partisan gerrymandering by requiring states to use certain criteria when drawing new congressional districts.
  • Prohibit local election officials from being fired or removed without cause. 
  • Make interfering with voter registration a federal crime and impose strict penalties against harassing election workers. 

This bill is named for Selma activist, Dr. King colleague, and former Georgia Congressional Representative, John Lewis.

I’m not sure if there is a relationship between redemption and water, though there certainly was for the Israelites and Civil Rights activists. As was music – Mi Chamocha for the Jews and We Shall Overcome for the Civil Rights activists. And so, on this Shabbat of Song, let us remember the role music plays in our lives – to inspire, enrich, and evoke, and to move us toward making our world a place where we celebrate the dignity and humanity of each one of us.

Shabbat shalom.

Wed, December 7 2022 13 Kislev 5783