By Jessica Brodie
COLUMBIA— Sometimes, we have to take action to get people to hear our cry.
That was the word from Clara Ester, deaconess and racial justice champion, who spoke to scores of South Carolina United Methodist Women Feb. 21 for their annual Legislative Advocacy Day.
Ester, from the Alabama-West Florida Conference who is vice president of the national United Methodist Women board of directors and a member of their Racial Justice Charter Support Team, said she is passionate about fighting against injustice. But early on, she realized the promise in the Pledge of Allegiance was not about justice for all but really justice for some—because of poverty, hunger, segregation, racial disparity and a host of other issues.
“I think about America, the land of the free, and I think about the number of people around our country who are locked up,” Ester said, noting many of those in jail are in for drugs or because of false accusations, and we have a responsibility to care for them and speak on their behalf.
Ester recalled Ricky, a young man who was arrested at age 15 for trafficking because he brought two marijuana cigarettes with him across state lines on a trip to his grandmother’s house. He was sentenced to nine months and went to prison with adult men who were serious criminals, locked up for murder, rape and armed robbery.
But Ricky’s nine-month stint took a tragic turn. Ricky was raped repeatedly in prison. He reported the rapes, but they didn’t stop. One day, he’d had enough. The next time he was attacked, Ester said, Ricky was ready. He’d sharpened his toothbrush and stabbed his rapist in the neck.
“His nine months became 15-20 years—all over two marijuana joints,” Ester said. Ricky ended up being sent home to die years later because he had contracted HIV/AIDS from his rapist. “The system is broke.”
Stirred to action
Ester also shared about Anthony Hinton, a black man who was falsely accused of murder in a tiny town in Alabama. Hinton told her how, when the arresting officers took him downtown to the station, he’d pleaded with them to tell him what he had done. One of the officers said it didn’t matter—he’d be going to death row no matter what.
“Number one, you’re black,” Ester said. “Number two, you’re going to have a white judge. Number three, you’re going to have an all-white jury. Number four, you’re poor. And number five, you’ll have a court-appointed attorney and you’ll meet him the morning of the trial.”
Hinton was placed immediately without trial on death row. He served 14 years before he was found not guilty, Ester said, then it took 16 more years before they let him go home. He served 30 years on death row before he was released for a crime he didn’t commit.
Ester said when she heard Hinton speak about his wrongful imprisonment, she was astounded.
“He said, ‘I’m not mad at them. I was so angry the first 18 months that I was locked in there. I would pace sometimes—I hated the judge. I hated anything white. I hated my white shoes. I was locked up for something I didn’t do, and any day they could take my life,’” she said.
But after 18 months, Ester said, he woke up one morning and decided, “Lord, I’m not going to let them take my joy away.” From that point on, Hinton’s whole life changed. He found freedom in literature.
Ester didn’t feel the same sort of peace hearing Hinton’s story. The injustice he experienced made her furious—and stirred to action. And she decided then and there she would not remain quiet until justice prevailed for other Anthony Hintons who are locked up in prison systems all over the United States.
She said United Methodist Women and all people of advocacy need to speak up, tell these stories and cry out for justice. Even when people are convicted of a crime they did commit, she said we still have an obligation to care and a calling to fight for change in a justice system that is unfair and locks up people of color at vastly disproportionate rates.
“Hispanics, Native Americans, my black brothers and sisters—we are locked up quadruple time compared to the white population,” Ester said. “How they make the judgment, I don’t know; how poor white people get off, I don’t know. But it starts with your legislators. It starts with that green stuff called money power. And it starts with United Methodist Women all over the United States.”
Ester also called for stronger re-entry programs for ex-offenders returning home. Society is not user-friendly for those who have been locked up for some time.
“It’s a broken system,” Ester said. “It’s not working right. But y’all, we got the power. Look at all of y’all in here today, and let’s look at every conference in the United States.”
Imagine was would happen if we all came together and said this is not right and stand up for the wrong.
“Jesus said, ‘I was in prison and you visited me.’ But how many brothers and sisters who are locked up have you visited?” Ester said. “All they need is us.”
Women can change the world
Ester, the keynote speaker, was among many advocates who spoke to the women at Legislative Advocacy Day, held at Epworth Children’s Home. Jackie Hicks, South Carolina UMW social action coordinator, kicked off the day by noting there are so many things women need to be about and advocate for, and women have the power to make the world right.
“When people need something done, they call on the United Methodist Women,” Hicks said, urging the women to remember that and take action against injustice.
Brenda Kneece, executive minister of the South Carolina Christian Action Council, told a story about running late while traveling to a speaking engagement. Somehow in her rush, she tore her skirt and had no change of clothes; luckily, she had a slip, got to her engagement and made it happen. She urged women to make sure they have their slip—their foundation for Christian action that is rooted in fellowship and discipleship.
“I can’t imagine a roomful of women who can’t change the world,” Kneece said, lifting up the day’s theme of passion, vision and action and noting that all effective action is fueled by passion and vision. “You have to have a heart for what you do and let it be seen in the world. Then you must have a vision for what you need to. Then you must have some definitive steps of action.”
Marlene Spencer, president of the South Carolina Conference United Methodist Women, urged those present to remember their call to advocacy and to always be sure to tell their story.
South Carolina Resident Bishop Holston said we all have a tendency to close our eyes to the world around us and forget what God is trying to do with us and for us.
“We have an opportunity to make a difference today; you have the power to do so,” Holston told the crowd.
Education: a step in the right direction
Also that day, Sen. Mike Fanning of South Carolina District 17, last year’s keynote speaker, spoke before the crowd and noted that so many of the problems in society can be resolved through education.
“But we have fully funded education in South Carolina eight times in 40 years,” Fanning said. “We live in a place where a kid’s zip code determines the quality of their education.”
A landmark lawsuit, Abbeville vs. South Carolina, ruled it is the state’s job to ensure everybody deserves the same quality of education.
“But it’s been five years; nothing has changed. And there is nothing in the legislative hopper this year that will help,” Fanning said. “Our kids deserve that we fully fund education in South Carolina.”
Rebecca Rochester, retired president of the South Carolina Education Association, spoke about the school-to-prison pipeline, where students exposed to certain practices in school such as zero tolerance policies result in their being funneled to prison as older teens and adults.
“Black students are suspended and expelled three times more than white students,” Rochester told the crowd. “But kicking kids out for disturbing school and minor behavior issues doesn’t work. Higher suspension rates lead to lower test scores and dropouts and delinquencies. The school-to-prison pipeline doesn’t work and has some terrible consequences.”
Rochester urged United Methodist Women to support legislation advocating funding for schools and to do what it takes to hold schools accountable.
Workshops explore education, human trafficking
Three workshops rounded out the day. Bernadette Hampton, president of the South Carolina Education Association, presented on public education legislation issues. Julie Nelson, mayor of Manning, spoke on the importance of early education for mothers and their children. Kelly Bagwell O’Neill presented on human trafficking awareness. O’Neill is president of the Eastern Carolina Coalition Against Human Trafficking and a member of the State Attorney General’s Task Force.
For more on the work of South Carolina United Methodist Women, including upcoming events, visit www.umcsc.org/umw.