In March 1965, a Boston-based Unitarian Universalist minister, Rev. James Reeb, joined Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, and other Black civil rights movement leaders in Selma, Alabama, to support their efforts to secure voting rights for Black people living in the South. Along with two other Unitarian ministers, Rev. Clark Olsen and Rev. Orloff Miller, Reeb was attacked by white supremacists. He died a few days later.
Just a few weeks later, Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a Unitarian Universalist from Michigan who also traveled to Selma to support the protests, was shot to death by Ku Klux Klan members as she drove movement supporters to and from the airport. Both Reeb and Liuzzo were inspired by their Unitarian Universalist faith and its commitment to promote justice and equality, including through access to the simple but sacred act of voting. Both are also considered martyrs of the civil rights movement.
While we are not a creedal faith, Unitarian Universalists are guided by a moral compass and shared values articulated in our Seven Principles. Our Fifth Principle affirms “the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” In other words, we hold the practice of democracy within our denomination and among society at large as sacred. We know that every voice is needed, every voice matters, and unfettered access to the ballot is essential to ensuring every voice is heard. Promoting democracy also means partnering directly with communities most subject to voter suppression, especially Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) that experience both systemic policies and threats of violent intimidation to prevent them from exercising their Constitutional rights. In both words and deeds, UUs have shown how important—how revered—protecting and expanding the right to vote is to us.
This work has become even more urgent as elements in American society would both roll back basic rights for Black and brown people, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, those living with disabilities, and women, and impose authoritarian order on this country. Just this year alone, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, severely limiting access to abortion, while Texas and other states seek to criminalize gender-affirming care for trans youth—all of which threatens the religious liberty of UUs and others.
It’s important to understand those efforts in combination with schemes to threaten the very lifeblood of democracy by narrowing voting access, especially for BIPOC communities. We all witnessed what took place on January 6, 2021, an effort to subvert American democracy through a failed insurrection. As ominous have been moves at the state level to suppress and limit access to voting. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “since the beginning of 2021, 18 states have passed 34 restrictive voting laws, which can disproportionately affect voters of color.”
UUs recognize American democracy is and always has been imperfect and compromised, especially for communities that have been marginalized and oppressed throughout the nation’s history. Still, as we asserted in a Statement of Conscience in 2019, “The promise of democracy is for a life that fashions us as the people we want to be.”
So, as we’ve done countless times before, UUs are putting our money where our mouths are. For our 2022 UU the Vote initiative, a nonpartisan civic engagement effort centered on strengthening democracy and organizing for justice, accountability, and healing, we are focusing on twelve states. We are equipping UUs and other voters with the tools they need to have values-based conversations around important ballot initiatives at the center of public debate. In 2020, UU the Vote successfully contacted more than 3 million voters. This year, we have already reached almost a million people.
What underlies our commitment is the belief that voting itself is sacred, because the right to vote is the recognition that one’s voice matters and is needed to shape the decisions affecting us all. Those who would seek to undermine it are not only harming vulnerable communities, they are destroying the democratic values that millions of Americans hold dear. And they are betraying the memories of those—like Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Rev. James Reeb, Viola Liuzzo, and many more—who paid the ultimate price because they, too, believed the right to vote is sacred. Our faith demands we protect democracy, and we as Unitarian Universalists will do everything in our power to do so.