GERALD BEPKO Commentary: Let’s celebrate everyone’s right to vote

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Recently, our senior pastor at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, Kent Millard, spoke with typical passion of the “externally focused life,” recalling the lessons of our faith that teach the importance of leading a life of service. Scripture references included well-known lines from the Gospel of Luke concluding with these words: “What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?”

Similar words were used 40 years earlier, on March 15, 1965, in a message to Congress delivered by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The occasion was the introduction of the Voting Rights Act designed to ensure the right to vote for African-Americans in parts of our country where “Jim Crow” laws and practices denied it.

Johnson thought the subject of equal voting rights for all Americans was linked to our most basic mission to do justice and to serve our fellow man. He said, ” … should we defeat every enemy, should we double our wealth and conquer the stars, and still be unequal to this issue, then we will have failed as a people and as a nation. For with a country as with a person, ‘What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?'”

Johnson spoke to advance freedom, the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. He said the most basic right of all was “the right to choose your leaders,” and “the history of the U.S. was a history of expansion of those rights to all of our people.”

The expansion assured by the Voting Rights Act, however, was not only to benefit African-Americans. Johnson said it is really for all of us “who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.” And, he said, “We shall overcome.”

In his reviews of the Johnson audiotapes, historian Michael Beschloss writes that Martin Luther King Jr. watched this speech on television. When he heard a white Southern president state the credo of the American civil rights movement, he wept.

Congress acted with uncommon speed and on Aug. 6, 1965, Johnson signed the bill into law. It has been renewed and amended three times to address issues that affect other minority groups and is due for reconsideration and renewal in 2007. The U.S. Department of Justice Web site refers to it as the most important civil rights law in our nation’s history.

Time should be taken this year to commemorate the 40th anniversaries of these important milestones to remind ourselves of the struggles and the achievements of free peoples in perfecting voting rights. These are struggles that continue here at home, as we seek to refine voting processes, and abroad, where progress in this quest for liberty is at an earlier stage.

On Jan. 20, in his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush remembered this when he observed that freedom is the permanent hope of mankind. He said, “When our founders declared a new order of the ages, when the soldiers died in wave upon wave for a Union based on liberty, when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner “Freedom Now”-they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled.”

Bush said to the people of the world, “When you stand for liberty, we will stand with you. Democratic reformers facing repression … can know: America sees you for who you are: the future leaders of your free country.”

Judging by the voter turnout on Jan. 30, some Iraqis may have wept as they listened.

Bepko is IUPUI chancellor emeritus and Indiana University trustees’ professor at IUPUI. He can be reached by e-mail at

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