From left, Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Leola Robinson Simpson, Annie McDaniel, Chandra Dillard, Rosalyn Henderson Myers, Patricia Henegan, Krystle Simmons and Wendy Brawley pose for a photo outside the House chamber at the Statehouse Wednesday, May 8, 2019 in Columbia, S.C. This is the first time in the state’s history that nine African American women are serving in the House of Representatives simultaneously. Not pictured is Rep. J. Anne Parks. (AP Photo/Christina Myers)
During the last week of this year’s legislative session in South Carolina, eight of the state’s nine African American women serving in the House gathered to record a historic moment.
This is the first time in the state’s history that nine African American women have served simultaneously in the House of Representatives, a moment shared among a sisterhood of women who say their primary mission is to serve and create positive change.
“I think we are uniquely situated to do that,” Rep. Wendy Brawley of Hopkins said of her eight African American female colleagues. “It’s the most that has ever served In the House at one time, and I think we can be and have been a formidable force.”
They wanted to take a photo near a portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune, the famous educator and stateswoman born a daughter of former slaves in Mayesville, South Carolina as a nod to how African American women have always had a significant impact on South Carolina’s history. And they also strive to have their own impact in the legislature.
Joining Brawley are Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg, Chandra Dillard of Greenville, Rosalyn D. Henderson-Myers of Spartanburg, Patricia Henegan of Bennettsville, Annie E. McDaniel of Winnsboro, J. Anne Parks of Greenwood, Leola Robinson Simpson of Greenville, and Krystle Simmons of Ladson. They are women who serve all parts of the state, representing almost every industry including a magazine CEO, social worker, higher education administrators, attorney, retired educator and consultant, funeral director and engineer planner.
African American women have been serving in the South Carolina House for just 44 years. Juanita C.W. Goggins of York County was elected in 1975, serving for five years. Her achievements in improving education and public health paved the way for African American women to pick up the torch and serve behind her.
From left, Reps. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, Wendy Brawley and Krystle Simmons meet during recess inside the House chamber of the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., on Tuesday, May 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Christina Myers)
“I don’t know if I digested how big this is,” Rep. Krystle Simmons said. “I just hope that little brown boys and girls, young girls, college age, I hope they look at me and say because of her, we can.”
Simmons just completed her first year in the legislature and the Ladson Democrat said she is not concerned about re-election but is instead focusing on inspiring young women and minorities to be civically engaged.
The mother of five has already left an impact on some lawmakers. When the issue of defunding Planned Parenthood came up, Simmons spoke of how she benefited from services other than abortion that the organization offers – such as parenting classes, which she attended after becoming a new mother.
After her remarks, some lawmakers approached her and expressed their support behind the scenes.
“There were so many that came up to me after that talk that said they wanted to be with me, but couldn’t,” Simmons said. “My problem is that you’re making an uneducated decision because you’re basing your decision off of hearsay.”
Simmons flipped her district, beating a Republican who has long held the seat.
One of the lawmakers made history of her own. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter was given the honor in January of gaveling in the 123rd session of the South Carolina House as the longest serving member of the chamber. She is also the longest serving African American in the state’s history, elected in 1992 having spent years behind the scenes encouraging other women to run for office. The Orangeburg lawmaker said the House is not the same place it was when she started.
“I would like to see a return of actual debate of issues. I want to return to when we were more focused on substance than symbol,” Cobb-Hunter said. “I know that my value, my message is not for the 123 people sitting in that room.”
Recognizing the contributions of African Americans is important for the Orangeburg lawmaker who said she helped spearhead efforts to construct and dedicate the African American monument on the Statehouse grounds. That and the removal of the Confederate flag are vivid memories, both representing some progress in the state.
“Just the symbolism of that is just great,” Cobb-Hunter said of seeing an image of an empty pole laying on the Statehouse grounds in 2015. “That’s a vivid memory when we took the flag off the front lawn.”
Though some progress is evident in the position and power African Americans now hold in the Legislature, Brawley acknowledges there is still more work that needs to be done. The Hopkins lawmaker said the biggest challenge some of her colleagues face is navigating a system designed to help the people in power ignore legislation they don’t like with little accountability.
“Good ideas that can help advance the cause of South Carolina sit in a languishing committee because we are not willing to be nonpartisan enough to push good legislation,” Brawley said. “None of us are afraid to speak up and give voice to issues that will make a difference.”
And whether it was their first year or their 28th year in the Legislature, they are passionate about their service and the difference they can make.
“We have to fight. We’ve had to fight for everything we’ve got,” Brawley said. “I don’t see going to the General Assembly as lightening the load. It means the responsibility is probably going to be a little harder.”
A Bible on display at a memorial at New Hampshire’s veterans hospital should be removed because it is a violation of the First Amendment, a U.S. Air Force veteran said in a federal lawsuit Tuesday.
The Bible was carried by a prisoner of war in World War II and became part of the Missing Man Table honoring missing veterans and POWs at the entranceway of the Manchester VA Medical Center. The Department of Veterans Affairs said Tuesday the table was sponsored by a veterans group called the Northeast POW/MIA Network.
The lawsuit filed in Concord by James Chamberlain against the center’s director, Alfred Montoya, says the Bible’s inclusion is in violation of the Constitution. The First Amendment stipulates “that the government may not establish any religion. Nor can the government give favoritism to one religious belief at the expense of others,” according to the suit.
Chamberlain, a devout Christian, said in the lawsuit the table should be a memorial to all who have served, regardless of their beliefs. The suit said the original POW/MIA table tradition was started by a group of Vietnam combat pilots and didn’t include a Bible as one of the items.
The medical center initially removed the Bible in January after another group, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, objected, saying it got complaints from 14 patients who felt it violated the First Amendment. A variety of religions were represented among the 14.
But the Bible reappeared on the table in February. It had been removed “out of an abundance of caution,” Curt Cashour, a Department of Veterans Affairs spokesman, said in an emailed statement Tuesday. Afterward, the medical center received an outpouring of complaints from veterans and others, “many of whom dropped off Bibles at the facility” in protest, Cashour said.
After consulting with lawyers, the medical center put the Bible back on the table indefinitely, Cashour said. He called the table “a secular tribute to America’s POW/MIA community.”
He apologized to those were offended by the Bible’s “incorrect” removal.
But Mikey Weinstein, founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, said it is the presence of the Bible that is offensive.
“It’s incredibly disrespectful, dishonorable, and most importantly, it’s illegal,” he said.
The crowdfunding campaign to raise money for three African American churches gutted by arson in Louisiana began a week ago, but donations surged after flames engulfed the roof of Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and the outcry provoked a conversation about the disparate reactions to the tragedies.
Nearly $1 billion had been pledged to the Notre Dame rebuilding effort within hours of Monday’s blaze. The massive attention focused on the French landmark prompted Megan Romer to take note and tweet: “My heart is broken over the loss of Notre Dame. The Catholic Church is also one of the world’s wealthiest entities. If you are going to donate money to rebuild a church this week, I implore you to make it the black churches in St. Landry Parish.”
GoFundMe spokeswoman Aja Shepherd confirmed in an email that giving to the destroyed Louisiana churches increased Tuesday after Romer’s tweet and a challenge from freelance journalist Yashar Ali to his nearly 400,000 Twitter followers.
Other online reminders of the black churches’ plight followed, including this Tuesday tweet from Hillary Clinton: “As we hold Paris in our hearts today, let’s also send some love to our neighbors in Louisiana.”
Donations that totaled about $300,000 nearly a week into the campaign surged to $1.5 million by Wednesday night. The money is to be distributed equally among the three century-old churches to help them recover from the fires intentionally set from March 26 to April 4. White suspect Holden Matthews, 21, has been charged with arson and hate crimes.
Among the calls for more giving to the black churches, there was concern that they were already being forgotten as flames leapt from the roof of Notre Dame.
“It’s terrible what happened to Notre Dame. … But, 3 black churches in LA were purposely burnt down b/c of hate. Let’s not forget to be even more outraged about that,” Twitter user Joe Boyd wrote.
Native American Terrell Johnson, a 19-year-old Columbia University student and member of the Assiniboine Tribe, wondered: “Why are we not as worried about these sites being hurt that are historic to our minority groups, rather than majority groups?”
“It shows how little we are valued. These black churches, the mosque, Native American sites, they are not as valued as Catholicism or Christianity in that aspect, and it’s frustrating,” Johnson said in a Wednesday interview.
But journalist Thomas Chatterton Williams, in a series of tweets, took issue with the notion that concern about Notre Dame could be boiled down to a matter of race.
“It’s a tragedy when black churches + mosques are bombed, burned or vandalized, but of course the world pays more attention to an 800-year-old architectural masterpiece in the heart of a city everyone visits! That’s not white supremacy, and nonwhites who love Paris aren’t dupes,” he wrote.
The Rev. Roderick Greer of St. John’s Cathedral, an Episcopal place of worship in Denver, acknowledges that Notre Dame has higher visibility as a cultural, artistic and religious landmark than the three rural church buildings in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish.
Still, in a Wednesday interview, he questioned whether white Americans would pay as much attention even if the fire happened at high-profile black churches, such as Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, Ebenezer Baptist in Atlanta or Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church.
“Even if Mother Emmanuel or Ebenezer or 16th Street Baptist Church went up in flames, do white Americans, in particular, have the same emotional and visceral connections that they have to Notre Dame, which is on another continent?” said Greer. “That’s such a telling commentary on the white American imagination that support for black churches lost to arson surged only in the wake of a historic European cathedral fire.”
The Rev. Mason Jack, an officer with the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association, which includes the burned churches, said Wednesday he was grateful for the surge in donations. He acknowledged that the Notre Dame fire raised consciousness about the Louisiana fires but downplayed any concerns that black churches were being overshadowed or forgotten.
He said publicity surrounding all of the fires helped increase awareness of the need in Louisiana. “Maybe, for some, it was an awakening for them to bring healing and restoration,” he said.
Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this story.
Each church catered to an African American congregation. Each graced a rustic, country setting. Each fronted a small cemetery. And each is now a charred disaster scene, the result of three conflagrations that brought echoes of civil rights-era violence to Opelousas, a city of about 16,000 people in rural St. Landry Parish, Louisiana.
Thursday brought news of an arrest.
At a news conference, Gov. John Bel Edwards identified the suspect as Holden Matthews, a 21-year-old white man. He faces three counts of simple arson of a religious building on the state charges, said state Fire Marshal Butch Browning, who added that federal investigators also were looking into whether hate motived the fires.
St. Landry Sheriff Bobby Guidroz confirmed that Matthews is the son of a deputy. Guidroz said the father knew nothing of his son’s involvement and broke down over the arrest, which he helped facilitate by getting Matthews away from home.
Harry Richard — pastor of Greater Union Baptist Church, the site of the second fire — said he’s relieved about the arrest: “This takes a lot of the pressure off us.”
But the Rev. Freddie Jack, of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association said, “I would like to know whether he was working alone or not. We can’t let our guard down.”
At the news conference, however, Browning was confident that the danger to churches had ended. “This community is safe again,” said Browning, surrounded by local and federal authorities who had worked on the case. “We are extremely unequivocally confident that we have the person who is responsible for these tragic crimes.”
Edwards said the fires had stirred concern among people around the nation. “It has been especially painful because it reminds us of a very dark past of intimidation and fear,” Edwards said.
A Facebook page that appears to belong to Matthews shows him with the words “black metal” spray painted on a wall behind him. He also posted a comment on a movie’s portrayal of black metal musician Varg Vikernes, a far right figure convicted of manslaughter and arson at three churches. Black metal is an extreme subgenre of heavy metal with lyrics that often espouse Satanism and Paganism. A smaller subset of black metal bands feature neo-Nazi beliefs. The black metal scene was associated with Christian church burnings in Norway in the 1990s.
In the days leading up to the arrest, pastors and parishioners at the churches acted with dismay — and a kind of restraint.
“It’s like the ’60s again,” said Earnest Hines, a deacon at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church — the site of the last fire.
Yet Hines, and others connected to the churches, were careful not to automatically label the fires as racist acts.
“I don’t know why this happened, and we don’t need to jump to conclusions,” said Hines, a member of the church for more than 40 years. “We need to let them investigate, let the evidence come out.” Jack and Richard expressed similar sentiments.
The first fire torched the St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre last month. Days later, the Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Opelousas were burned. Each was more than 100 years old.
The churches were empty at the time of the fires, and no one was injured. Investigators with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were still combing the scene at Mount Pleasant and warning onlookers away on Wednesday, a week after the fire.
Investigators had retreated from the ruins of St. Mary Baptist Church in Port Barre, a town just outside of Opelousas and the site of the first fire on March 26. There and at Greater Union, which burned April 2, evidence of the fires’ intensity was more visible. Exterior walls of brick and wood had collapsed on rows of metal folding chairs at Greater Union. All that was left of what looked to have been an upright piano was the lattice-work of steel strings.
McGill reported from New Orleans. Associated Press writers Stacey Plaisance in Opelousas, Louisiana, and Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland, contributed to this report.
Actress Vivica A. Fox, left, poses for a photo before President Donald Trump speaks at the 2019 Prison Reform Summit and First Step Act Celebration in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, April 1, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
The Democrats seeking the White House have issued proposals on overhauling education, agriculture, technology and immigration. But none of the candidates has made specific pitches on how he or she would transform the nation’s criminal justice system.
Although the Democratic candidates have talked broadly about systemic racism — with several backing some form of reparations to the descendants of slaves — none has gone deep on mass incarceration or police reform.
It’s an omission that has frustrated some activists who hoped such issues would receive greater attention in a Democratic primary that includes two black candidates and is dominated by an overall push to the left on many social fronts. Some are worried it’s an early sign that candidates won’t pay enough attention to voters of color.
“This is not a marginal issue,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who is hosting several White House hopefuls this week at his annual social justice convention in New York. “Are they going to keep consent decrees? Are they going to deal with mass commutations? They’re going to have to deal with these questions.”
Sharpton pressed some Democratic presidential contenders on the issue Wednesday during the first day of his National Action Network conference. Under questioning from Sharpton, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said he would reverse an order from President Donald Trump’s Justice Department that restricted the federal government’s ability to use court-enforced consent decrees when state and local law enforcement agencies are accused of abuse. Those agreements, popular during President Barack Obama’s administration, generally provide a road map for changes in law enforcement practices.
“There must be accountability for enforcement of the law, there must be accountability for use of force, and federal funds to local police departments and sheriff’s departments must be tied to accountability,” O’Rourke said.
Other candidates including Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg will appear at the conference in the coming days and could face similar questions.
Such venues present an opportunity for voters to hold candidates accountable on issues specific to the black community. Sharpton’s conference is the year’s first such gathering of civil rights leaders and activists featuring so many of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls.
It comes at an awkward moment for Democrats as Trump, who has little support among black voters, has sought to portray himself as an advocate for criminal justice. He’s touted signing legislation last year aimed at addressing racially disparate federal prison sentences for crack cocaine offenses.
Although they have avoided some specifics, multiple candidates have taken steps to address systemic racism.
In the Senate, Booker has reintroduced legislation to decriminalize marijuana, and he was a co-sponsor of the First Step Act targeting crack sentencing. Before running for president, Harris proposed bipartisan federal legislation to end cash bail. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts called for criminal justice reform in her announcement speech in February but didn’t offer details on what that would look like.
Speaking at Sharpton’s conference on Wednesday, former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro spoke powerfully of the need for reparations. O’Rourke said he would support legislation that would create a commission to study the issue.
“Criminal justice reform is not a second-tier issue for African Americans,” said Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher. “Particularly for younger African Americans, it is competing against, if not trumping, some rather conventional issues for the attention and concern of these voters. It is a very good issue to home in on, and it makes all the sense in the world for them to talk about it.”
Criminal justice reform was thrust into national politics in 2014 with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, which highlighted the killings of black people by police and exposed patterns of bias in departments across the country. Under Trump, the Justice Department has generally taken a different stance on such issues, calling for less oversight and more praise of local law enforcement. In the years since, calls for reform have ushered in new local leadership, from district attorneys to mayors in cities like Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Cleveland.
The 2020 Democratic primary offers a fresh opportunity and bigger stage to wrestle with criminal justice, particularly with the entry of Harris, whose credentials as a former prosecutor are part of her narrative and criticism, or the potential entry of former Vice President Joe Biden, who may have to reckon with his role as the Senate Judiciary chairman who presided over the passage of the 1994 crime bill.
It will likely not be the last time the candidates meet under such circumstances, with the National Urban League conference in Indianapolis and the NAACP convention happening in Detroit, both set for July. Black Lives Matter is also considering hosting a Democratic town hall during the primary.
But, Sharpton points out, his conference is the first and only convening ahead of the first Democratic debate in June in Miami, and he said he wants criminal justice reform on stage there.
Brittany Packnett, who is active in the Black Lives Matter movement, echoed that hope. With so many Democrats seeking to gain a leg up in the primary, she said it’s important that criminal justice “doesn’t completely fall off the agenda.”