By the Rev. Amiri Hooker
“Woe to unjust judges and to those who issue unfair laws, says the Lord, so that there is no justice for the poor, the widows, and orphans.”—Isaiah 10:1-2
This summer as my daughter Sia started her first day of high school in Florence, my wife and I left her to travel to Washington, D.C. for a God-inspired march and action.
The Poor People’s Campaign intensified pressure on state and national leaders to use their power to bring change in this country through four weeks of nonviolent moral direct action in D.C. and in more than 30 states. I felt it very much a part of my calling—as an elder in The United Methodist Church, tri-chair in the Poor People’s Campaign and a member of the South Carolina Conference Advocacy team—to stand with faith leaders and low-wage workers.
Monday’s Aug. 2 press conference and march on Capitol Hill constituted one of the largest mass-arrest nonviolent protests at the Capitol in recent memory and attracted an array of prominent voices, including civil rights icon the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Luci Baines Johnson, the daughter of late President Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as the Rev. Freddie Haynes III and myself.
In the midst of COVID-19, around 500 voting rights activists and faith leaders sat outside the Hart Senate Office Building singing hymns, protesting poverty and calling for federal protection of voting rights that day. The actions were a part of the Poor People’s Campaign’s National Moral Monday Action.
Poor and low-income leaders and people of faith put themselves on the line, risking and undergoing arrest to bring attention to the dangerous rollbacks to our democracy. During this resurrection of nonviolent moral direct action, leaders from around the country took to the streets of Washington, D.C., and marched to senators’ offices to ask, “Which Side Are You On?”
At a rally near the capitol immediately before the march, leaders laid out what they insisted were interconnected issues driving their protest, which centered on voting rights, immigration reform, a $15/hour federal minimum wage and eliminating the Senate filibuster that has stymied passage of related federal legislation.
“Filibuster is a sin!” Bill Barber said that day. “Making essential workers work during a pandemic—and risk their lives to save this country—and then not give them a living wage is sin.”
Barber also offered his own adaptation of the Scripture passage from Isaiah 10:1-3: “Woe unto you hypocrites who pay attention to all of Robert’s Rules (of order), all the made-up rules of the Senate and the House, but you filibuster justice. And filibuster mercy. And you filibuster faithfully.”
The event also featured music. Singers led the crowd in belting: “Somebody’s hurting my brother, and it’s gone on far too long. And we won’t be silent anymore!”
The singers changed the lyrics as the song progressed, inserting lines such as “Somebody’s stealing our wages!” and “Somebody’s blocking our voting rights!”
After the speeches, we and other activists massed into a column and marched toward the Capitol, with clergy walking alongside low-wage workers and those impacted by poverty. Demonstrators took to the street a short time later after processing past the Supreme Court and the Methodist building toward the Hart Senate building. One column of protesters stayed on the sidewalk, but our group—including Barber, Liz Theoharis and Jackson—positioned themselves in the middle of the road, refusing to move. Some briefly requested entry to the Hart building at Barber’s urging, but police rebuffed them, and they returned to the street.
According to Capitol police, more than 200 faith-led demonstrators were arrested while praying, singing and protesting in the street, hoping to draw attention to voting rights and a slate of other issues participants argued impact the poor and low-wage workers.
As demonstrators sang and chanted—”What do we want? Voting rights! When do we want them? Now!”—officers began arresting those in the road one by one, carefully leading them away.
Cheers rose up as Theoharis, Barber and Jackson were arrested, and they were followed by hundreds more. Clergy of multiple faiths, low-wage workers, young activists and elderly people in walkers or wheelchairs were all among those arrested.
I personally felt empowered being arrested side by side with the Rev. Jim Winkler of the National Council of Churches and Texas pastor the Rev. Frederick Haynes III, who joined the Texas march and has vigorously opposed state elections bills and was among the speakers at the Washington rally. You know you are doing God’s work when you can stand hand and hand with your heroes of faith.
Another South Carolinian, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, addressed the crowd, bemoaning what he called a nation “in crisis” and voicing a willingness to go to jail for the cause.
He also led the group in a call-and-response chant: “I am! Somebody! I may be poor! But I am! Somebody! I may be unemployed! But I am! Somebody! I may not have health care! But I am! Somebody! Respect me! Protect me! Elect me! I am! God’s child!”
This made me think. I am clergy—and I need to have faith and act.
Hooker, a pastor in the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church, recently released a book available from the Advocate Press here: Preaching in the Midst Of.