I voted yesterday.
I almost didn’t. For a split second or three, I actually considered not voting. Because it was out of the way. Because I was running late. Because really, what would my one vote not cast cost?
And I went and voted anyway, because really – if I didn’t, what the hell? Would it really matter? (Never mind that I couldn’t think of what I would say to my son, what excuse or lie I might offer him. At fifteen, he is keenly interested in the whole democratic process unfolding before him. History in the making. Democracy in action. We talk politics all the time, my son and I, and seriously, my heart swells several sizes when we do and I can see him get the issues, when he makes the connections and connects the dots, even if his opinion is not always a parroted version of mine. Especially when his opinion is not a parroted version of mine. I could have fibbed, told him I’d voted, but that lie sounded hollow, even to me, so – what the hell. Might as well vote. Get it over with.)
As I drove to my polling place, really not so much out of the way, a name popped into my head – Mickey Schwerner. And then, almost immediately: Goodman. I couldn’t think of his first name (dammit), and it bothered me, teased my brain. What the hell is his first name? And the other guy? Dammit again – I can’t ever remember the other guy’s name. But for some reason, I always remember Mickey Schwerner.
So I voted and drove to my next appointment and went about my day
Mickey Schwerner. James Chaney. Andrew Goodman.
In 1964, members of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) the NAACP – a bunch of college kids, the twenty-somethings of their day – created Freedom Summer. Their goal – register African-American voters in Mississippi. Well over a thousand people, white, black, Christian, Jew, young, old – it didn’t matter. What mattered was that these people saw a broken world, filled with violence and ignorance and hatred, and they believed it was their obligation – their responsibility; their right; their joy and purpose – to heal it.
In mid-June of that year, Schwerner and Goodman headed south from New York, filled with passion and hope. They met up with Chaney, a native of Meridian, Mississippi and fellow civil rights worker. They believed that every person, regardless of the color of their skin, had the right to vote.
So they started registering voters – men and women who’d been kept from the polls by fear and intimidation and law all their lives. That’s it: registering voters – black voters in the deep South – during the Freedom Summer of 1964. On June 21, the three of them went to investigate the burning of a black church in Philadelphia, Nashoba County, Mississippi. In addition to believing that all people had a right to vote, they believed all people had a right to worship and pray as they believed, safe from harm. They were arrested by the police on trumped up charges, held for several hours, and then released, after dark, into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. They were beaten there, somewhere in the dark, beaten and terrorized and murdered by a group of 18 men (though only seven were eventually convicted of conspiracy, eight eventually were acquitted by an all-white jury and three cases ended in mistrials).
Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman were beaten and murdered that night by savages rooted in hatred and violence and fear. They were murdered in the dark, alone, because they believed they could heal a broken world.
The world is still broken. We see evidence of that every day – people in desperate need, driven by poverty or illness or hunger or hatred – a planet that is being choked and starved. There is greed and ignorance, intolerance and indifference. Even now, access to the polls is being threatened and there are many who are being deprived of their right to vote. In 2014. Not 1964, not 1865 – this year, this week, this day, there are people who are being disenfranchised. There are a thousand thousand ills that plague us – that can break our hearts and cripple our souls. And yet, in the midst of this desperate need, there is light. Kindness. Healing. Small acts – great acts, even – but acts of desperate love that stem the tide of hatred and bring grace and healing.
They changed the world, those murdered men. All of them, all of the bright and brave and hopeful men and women from that Freedom Summer. Not just them, but all of the bright and brave men and women who have fought so valiantly, with courage and conviction and commitment, all of them, from every age – they gave their lives to change the world. And I? I thought about not voting this morning, because it was inconvenient. Because I was late and it was one vote among millions and really – what would be missed?
What would be missed? What would be missed would be my own desperate act of love, to heal a broken world. One person. One vote. One voice. To heal and change and bring light to the darkness. Do I care how you vote, for whom you vote? Of course I do. I have my own ideas and visions and beliefs on what is right, what is good (for the community, for the broken, for those who cannot speak, for those I love and those I don’t). What is more important, though, to me, is that you vote. That matters. Exercise your voice. Make a choice. Demand that you be heard. Your voice, your vote – that desperate act of love matters.
People have died defending the belief that voting matters. People continue to die, every day, for their acts of desperate love and courage and faith, for their belief that they can heal a broken world. And here’s the tough part – we may never see the work complete, our world healed. But (and this is the big part, the harder part) – we are not excused from starting the work, from committing those desperate acts of love. Our Jewish sages have been teaching this for centuries: Lo alecha ham’lecha ligmor v’lo atah ben chorin l’hitabel mimena. It is not your duty to complete the work; neither are you free to desist from it. (Pirke Avot 2:16)
Schwerner and Goodman and Chaney. They were murdered in darkness, surrounded by hatred and fear. They were killed for their belief that the world needed healing and their lives – their voices, their ideas, their actions – could heal. The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King once said “If you haven’t found a cause to die for, you haven’t found a reason to live.” These three men and the countless, nameless hundreds before and after who were murdered and tortured for their own desperate acts of love – from Tienanmen Square to the Berlin Wall, from Tahrir Square in Cairo to any trackless, endless place where there are men and women who demand that they be heard, that their voice – all our voices – be heard, they found their reason to live. Let us say: zichronam liv’rcha (may their memories be for a blessing).
Let us celebrate their lives. Let us take courage from their faith. Let us vote – and argue and debate and learn and disagree and demand that our voices be heard. Let us commit acts of desperate love, because we can heal our broken world – one voice, one act, one vote at a time.