The Biggest Threat to our Democracy is Silence

There is a quote that I carry in my wallet. It is part of a speech delivered by Rabbi Joachim Prinz at the 1963 March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom:

When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those most tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

Rabbi Prinz’s words continue to strike a chord with me. Coming from a man who fled Germany to escape the Nazi regime, and later joined Dr. King in the fight for civil rights, they are a powerful testament to the moral decency that should exist within all of us.

Rabbi Joachim Prinz delivering a speech at the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. From <em>Prinz: The Cour
Rabbi Joachim Prinz delivering a speech at the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. From Prinz: The Courage to Speak

Today marks the 53rd anniversary of my brother’s death. Andrew Goodman was part of a team of one thousand young volunteers during Freedom Summer of 1964 who answered our country’s moral cry for justice. With permission from my parents, he travelled to Mississippi to register black Americans to vote because he believed it was the right thing to do.

On June 21, 1964—his first day in Mississippi—Andrew was brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan along with his fellow civil rights workers James Chaney and Michael Schwerner because he refused to stay silent. Even 53 years later, the Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner story is a painful reminder of how far we still have to go.

Left to right: Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner
Left to right: Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner

The Declaration of Independence says that all men are created equal. We repeat it over and over again but somehow continue to miss the mark in every day practice. Ricky John Best and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche were recently murdered, and Micah David-Cole Fletcher was seriously wounded in Portland, OR because like Andy, James, and Michael, they refused to sit on the sidelines when faced with prejudice and intimidation. They spoke up when they saw another man harass two young women on a train because of their religion.

The recent election has led to an increase in hateful and racist speech, antisemitism, and grave desecration. How can a country hailed as the “leader of the free world” allow its citizens to violate its core principles of freedom, equality, and justice for all? How many good Samaritans need to lose their lives before we say enough? It is up to us to make it clear that hatred, bigotry, racism, and xenophobia have no place in our country, they are un-American.

Our country has seen enough tragedy. We cannot allow extremism to flourish in the United States of America. We must all become whistleblowers who champion those targeted by hatred and oppression regardless of the source. When we do not speak up and take action to protect our rights as Americans, we create the next opportunity for injustice. It is up to us to protect our democracy so that the United States can deliver on its promise of tolerance and inclusivity.

Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, Ricky John Best, Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, and many others have answered Rabbi Prinz’s call. When faced with injustice, they refused to be silenced no matter the price. We stand on their shoulders as the next generation of moral citizens. We must follow in their footsteps and continue to speak up and close the gap between our ideals and everyday practices. We cannot sit on the sidelines and allow the very soul of our democracy to perish.

Vote Everywhere Ambassadors joined thousands of others at the 2017 Moral March in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Vote Everywhere Ambassadors joined thousands of others at the 2017 Moral March in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Defending democracy is at the core of The Andrew Goodman Foundation's Vote Everywhere program. Our Ambassadors are fueled by the same hope that inspired Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner to volunteer for Freedom Summer of 1964. They are young people who want to be on the right side of history and help our country uphold its founding principles. Our program is expanding strategically to engage HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and HSIs (Hispanic Serving Institutions) as well as states with low voter turnout and high levels of voter suppression. By doing so we hope to engage students who might otherwise not show up at the polls because we believe everyone should have the same access to the ballot. We want to remind everyone that as oppression and bigotry continue to try to silence us, we will remain engaged in the process, advocate for others, and use our votes as our voice.

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