As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 on August 6, it is an occasion to reflect on the deeper meaning of voting rights beyond politics, partisanship and polling places. To be human is to be made in the image and likeness of God the Creator. Therefore, full humanity requires that all human beings must be nurtured to be: creative; responsible for helping to care for the created order; aware of the significance of the choices they make; able to know that their choices have consequences for themselves and their fellow human beings; and able to function as agents of choice, impacting the conditions under which we must learn to live together.
Whatever functions to abridge or diminish the sense of responsible agency in our fellow human beings is an assault against the whole human race. Thus, voter suppression and the oppressive intention out of which it arises are an assault against humanity.
To show respect for the human race of which we are a part, we have the responsibility to do all we can to encourage all citizens to: creatively engage in the process of caring for the earth; live and work responsibly to enhance the quality of life of the whole human family; vote our convictions regarding the type of world we are building for our children to inhabit; and work in the political process against all forms of bigotry and prejudice which seeks to rob others of their call to moral agency.
Life demands of all human beings:
Be aware of what's going on in the world around us
know the alternatives for making things better
take responsibility for helping to improving the quality of life in the society
discuss, debate, discern
act for justice and compassion
learn from your actions
make better decisions
become a responsible agent of truth
In other words -- VOTE. Voting is not only a God-given right; it's a human responsibility.
A grim warning: Suppress the right to vote at your own peril and the downfall of the whole human family. We are not only Americans, but we are also members of the human race; while it may require special understanding, there is a sense in which what we do to others affects us all. Those who support voter suppression measures should be reminded of the words of Chief Seattle, "All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."
The assault against peaceful voting rights activists marching from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, caught on television, galvanized public opinion and presidential action. Just days later, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared in a special message to a joint session of Congress his intention to bring them a voting rights bill, saying:
Our mission is at once the oldest and most basic of this country: to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man. In our time we have come to live with moments of great crisis. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues; issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. But rarely in any time does an issue lay bare the secret heart of America itself. Rarely are we met with a challenge, not to our growth or abundance, our welfare or our security but rather to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved Nation. ....There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans -- not as Democrats or Republicans -- we are met here as Americans to solve that problem.
Now, as then, the heart of the matter is responsible human agency. Reflecting on the founding words of our nation, President Johnson said: "Those words are a promise to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man's possessions, it cannot be found in his power or his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom, he shall choose his leaders, educate his children, and provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being.
Sounding like a preacher, President Johnson concluded his nationally broadcast remarks to Congress, saying:
Above the pyramid on the great seal of the United States it says -- in Latin -- 'God has favored our undertaking.' God will not favor everything that we do. It is rather our duty to divine His will. But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking that we begin here tonight.
The Voting Rights Act was signed into law by President Johnson on August 6, 1965. His decision to take action on voting rights was largely the result of relentless, unyielding pressure from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That pressure led to the point of straining their relationship. But in the end, Dr. King shed tears of joy as President Johnson set pen to this historic document.
This year, representatives of the Drum Major Institute, an organization seeking to continue the legacy of Dr. King, including Ambassador Andrew Young and Martin Luther King III, will join with leaders of the SCLC and others at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in commemoration of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Can we be any less insistent today than Dr. King was 50 years ago that fundamental to the American Dream is the right for all God's children to vote? All indications are that in the present climate in our nation, we have a mandate to refocus and recommit to the prospect of all God's children being encouraged to vote and to make it clear that efforts to stand in the way are perhaps not only an assault against humanity, but a crime against nature and a sin against God.