By Ariel Pinsky
“Don’t just commemorate, legislate” was the primary message of demonstrators in the Piedmont Park lawn across from the Park Tavern between rainstorms the evening of Wednesday, June 24.
Organized by Ahavath Achim Synagogue’s AAspire young adult group and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta as part of the national effort of Bend the Arc, the rally consisted of 15 people advocating the passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act by Congress while commemorating the 51st anniversary of the deaths of Jewish civil rights activists Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman.
The memorial, including the lighting of yahrzeit candles, served as the kickoff for local Jewish activism on voting rights.
By holding signs and passing out fliers, supporters attempted to raise awareness of voting inequality that they believe persists because of voter ID requirements and other “oppressive voting laws” in several states.
“Texas and Georgia have these terrible records in which African-American students and the elderly are denied the ability of access out of fear of voter fraud,” said AA Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal, who led a brief ceremony with fellow Rabbi Neil Sandler. “When you deny people, you end up with something very different from a democracy. You end up with a country that is run by a few.”
Rabbi Rosenthal said the number of people perpetrating in-person voter fraud — the stated reason for voter ID laws — is so minuscule that the issue isn’t worth discussing.
Those laws aren’t a problem for middle-class people who have driver’s licenses but are a burden for poor people who don’t drive, he said.
“To get a free ID, you need to have certain documents. You need to have your original birth certificate. If you don’t have one, then you need to go buy one, which is hard for working-class people,” Rabbi Rosenthal said about the Georgia voter ID law. “Why aren’t we focusing on the polls and making that opportunity more available?”
Leah Fuhr, who leads AAspire as AA’s youth and young-adult community director and helped organize the gathering, explained the need to act on voting rights before the 2016 presidential elections.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 struck down a part of the Voting Rights Act that required certain states, including Georgia, to get federal preapproval for redistricting and changes to certain voting laws.
“We are hoping to push our Congress to change that law,” Fuhr said.
The VRAA would restore the requirement for federal preapproval in any state with at least 15 voting rights violations in the previous 25 years. That provision would cover every state that was in the Confederacy except Tennessee, plus New York, California and Arizona.
Rabbi Sandler led a candlelight yahrzeit ceremony for Schwerner and Goodman, who were slain with black activist James Chaney on June 21, 1964, while attempting to register black voters in Mississippi. National outrage over their deaths helped pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Demonstrators were disappointed by the turnout, which the bad weather and resulting heavy traffic didn’t help.
“I think there’s something to say in the fact that there aren’t 200 or 300 people here,” Rabbi Rosenthal said.
Supporters hope to increase the attendance at future rallies and vigils.
All photos by Jon Barash.