The Rev. William Barber, center, flanked by the Rev. Liz Theoharis, left, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, right, speaks during a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins
WASHINGTON (RNS) — As police escorted a demonstrator in a wheelchair away from the chanting throng descending on the Capitol Monday (Aug. 2), fellow protesters turned to watch the person go. The group paused for a moment, then altered their call.
They screamed in unison: “Thank you! We love you!”
The lone protester nodded, fist raised. The crowd erupted in applause.
It was a moment that played out again and again over the course of the afternoon. 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.
The sprawling demonstration was organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, an advocacy group led by the Rev. William Barber II and the Rev. Liz Theoharis that tends to support left-leaning policies. Monday’s action on the 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.
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 an hour federal minimum wage and eliminating the Senate filibuster that has stymied passage of related federal legislation.
“Filibuster is a sin!” Barber declared. “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.”
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!”
The song echoes the sweeping, evolving agenda articulated by a variety of faith leaders across the country in recent months, particularly those who operate within religious communities of color.
The Poor People’s Campaign took a leading role in propelling that agenda this summer in the wake of Republican-led efforts to pass state-level elections bills many activists decry as restrictive. Indeed, Monday’s march follows what organizers called a “season” of similar demonstrations organized by the PPC over the past two months in Washington, Arizona and most recently Texas, where activists mimicked the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The group walked 27 miles from Georgetown to Austin, Texas, in late July to oppose voting restrictions.
Texas pastor the Rev. Frederick Haynes III, who joined the Texas march and has vigorously opposed state elections bills, was among the speakers at the Washington rally.
Activists are arrested during a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins
“President Biden, Democrats and Republicans, the culture will put it like this: If you come for us and we didn’t send for you, you don’t want this smoke,” said the Progressive National Baptist, whose denominational convention is happening this week. “You don’t want this smoke because we are fighting for the soul of this nation.”
The activists’ efforts have hit roadblocks with some Democrats at the national level, particularly Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona. Both opposed efforts to pass minimum wage increases and eliminate the filibuster this year — in Manchin’s case, despite a meeting with Barber and low-wage workers. The Poor People’s Campaign has since targeted bothlawmakers with protests.
Barber was quick to harangue members of both parties during the rally, accusing some Democrats of heaping praise on late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis but failing to support his vision for voting rights.
“Some Democrats told us: ‘If y’all organize, don’t connect wages to voting rights,'” Barber said. “I’m too old to play that.”
He added: “The same people suppressing the votes suppress your wages, won’t fix your utility grids, suppress your health care, cut public education, block living wages — you’ve got to make the connection.”
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.”
Barber was briefly joined at the rally by Sen. Raphael Warnock, himself a prominent Georgia pastor. However, Barber explained Warnock would not speak because the campaign generally does not let politicians address their protests. Warnock is a champion of the For the People Act, a federal voting rights legislation Barber and others praised but Manchin opposed.
The Rev. Rev. Liz Theoharis, center left, and the Rev. William Barber lead a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration march in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins
Among the clergy milling about the crowd — which also included many red-shirted members of the labor union Unite Here! — were the Rev. Patrick Messer, a United Church of Christ pastor who just left a church in Nebraska, and the Rev. Deana Oliva, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Kentucky.
Asked what spurred them to be part of the protest, Oliva was aghast at the thought of not participating — “Where else would we be?” — and Messer pointed to Jesus.
“I’m here because in Jesus’ first sermon he said the spirit is upon me to bring good news to the poor, and to bring deliverance to the captive,” Messer said. “We’re here to bring a $15 minimum wage to all workers, restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and pass all the provisions of the For the People Act and end the filibuster.”
The daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson — who signed the Voting Rights Act into law — also addressed the crowd at the event. Luci Baines Johnson noted she could not speak for her father, but insisted he would have wanted her to be with activists “in the fight for social justice and voting rights.” After voicing support for the For the People Act and the John Lewis Act, another voting rights bill, she invoked Scripture while calling for bipartisanship.
“In the 1960s, Democrats and Republicans stood up together for social justice,” she said. “It was the right thing then, and it’s the right thing now. Now more than ever before, we need to — in the words of Isaiah — come and reason together to get a more just America for everybody.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson also addressed the crowd, bemoaning what he called a nation “in crisis” and voicing a willingness to go to jail for the cause.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, center, speaks during a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins
He 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!”
Others who delivered either speeches or prayers at the event included prominent Muslim American activist Linda Sarsour, National Council of Churches President Jim Winkler, Simple Way founder Shane Claiborne, activist and former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe Wendsler Nosie and several low-wage workers or people impacted by poverty.
After the speeches, the activists massed into a column and marched toward the Capitol, with clergy walking alongside low-wage workers and those impacted by poverty. Tensions briefly flared with police when they insisted demonstrators stay on the sidewalk for one stretch of their march. Protesters initially refused, walking past police before a wave of new officers arrived and corralled the group off the street.
Demonstrators took to the street a short time later after processing past the Supreme Court toward the Hart Senate building. One column of protesters stayed on the sidewalk, but a separate group — including Barber, Theoharis, Jackson and what appeared to be Messer and Oliva — 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.
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.
When each one arrived at the area where other arrestees were waiting to be processed, shouts and applause rang out.
It remains to be seen how lawmakers will react to the growing protest movement. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio was spotted walking quickly past the protest. When demonstrators shouted for the end of the filibuster, he quickly replied, “I agree with you,” a reference to his public willingness to end the filibuster if Republicans continue to use it to block liberal legislation.
The mixture of religious and labor demonstrators appeared to be clear in their cause on Monday and dedicated to convincing Congress to support it. They sang many songs, but one favorite seemed to be aimed directly at lawmakers: It simply asked, over and over, “Which side are you on?”
Fans of political drama certainly have gotten their plates full over the last few years. In addition to award-winning, critically acclaimed series like The Wire and The West Wing, viewers have been treated to healthy doses of political intrigue on the short-lived Political Animals, The Chicago Code, and most recently, Boss, the Kelsey Grammer vehicle.
Into the fray comes Kevin Spacey in the Netflix original series, House of Cards, which debuted last Friday in an experimental format. The early buzz is due to its novelty as the first original series produced for Netflix, but most of the critical acclaim is aimed squarely at Spacey himself for his bracing, arresting performance.
Spacey’s protagonist, Francis Underwood, is the kind of charismatic, calculating, conniving antihero that audiences can’t avert their gaze from, even when he’s doing something as viscerally disturbing as [minor spoiler alert] euthanizing an injured dog. As Underwood, Spacey fills the screen with an endless string of meetings and phone conversations with theWashingtonelite, solving problems, currying favor, and dispensing axioms left and right.
Which is to say, he’s a classic Kevin Spacey character. But there’s another figure that Spacey’s Underwood resembles – that of a pastor. The resemblance grows even clearer during the third of episode of House of Cards, when [again, MINOR SPOILER] Francis Underwood is forced to travel to his home district in South Carolina to address a local tragedy and ends up speaking at a church in the area.
Part of Underwood’s appeal is his habit of breaking the fourth wall by looking directly into the camera and telling the audience his thoughts, which often differ dramatically to whatever he’s just said to another character. So the scene where he does this from the church lectern, where he totally contradicts himself in the middle of an emotionally-charged quasi-sermon, is supposed to highlight Underwood’s depravity by juxtaposing his hypocrisy against the moral uprightness of the church.
Unfortunately, that scene – minus a few Hollywood theatrical touches – plays out in churches all acrossAmericaevery Sunday. Except that in real life, the churches are just as complicit in the charade.
In his blog, Dr. Paul Metzger of Multnomah Biblical Seminary recently contrasted the fervor with which evangelicals tend to oppose evolution with the tacit acceptance they tend to give free-market economics, despite their being two different sides of the same ideological coin (according to Metzger, they’re both about survival of the fittest). This kind of bias creates a cultural blind spot, which invites certain pastors to speak out in favor of intelligent design in the classroom while remaining woefully silent on loopholes in the American tax code that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor.
(Then again, maybe we should be grateful for the silence, since some pastors clearly don’t understand the real-world ramifications of certain economic policies. Yes, I’m talking to you, Applebee’s pastor lady.)
The truth is, sometimes pastors make decisions for less-than-Godly reasons, and the faithful in the pews sometimes have trouble discerning when and why. In this scene, Spacey’s Underwood ends up quoting Proverbs 3:5, but it’s clear that his oratory is motivated more by political reasons than by any desire to honor God or share His truth with people.
And this wasn’teven during an election year.
House of Cards gets its name not only from its original British source material, but from the idea that our political process is effective only insomuch as people allow themselves to be shielded from the details of how it works. Otherwise, the facade is pierced and the whole thing comes falling down.
The same can be said about the church. For decades, many of our churches have been places where the primary motivation for showing up is neither worship nor Word, but to ascend the various echelons of social respectability. As such, it became easier and more popular to apply social pressure to overcome secularists who resist the church’s public agenda, rather than genuinely caring about them and allowing the Holy Spirit to use us to break down their defenses through other, non-activist means.
As long as it works, everyone’s fine – but anytime there’s a shift in the prevailing sense of morality, the whole thing falls apart.
The irony is, we revert to these top-down techniques because in many ways, they work. It’s a lot easier to demonize your opponents via press release than it is to invite your political opponent over for dinner and actually listen to what they have to say. Fortunately, people like Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy and gay activist Shane Windmeyer have proven that it’s not impossible. But still, it’s the exception to the rule.
After all, Underwood’s Machiavellian machinations don’t just make for good television – they’re compelling because they’re effective. For men and women like Francis Underwood, that’s how things get done in Washington. But it doesn’t have to be this way in the church. It really doesn’t. And even if, as the more cynical among us might argue, it is this way in the church and nothing will change anytime soon, then let’s at least let’s have someone come up with a decent scripted drama about it. And no, the pastor’s-wives-reality-show The Sisterhood doesn’t count.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial that was unveiled last week came under fire first for appearing too Asian. Now poet and author Maya Angelou says a quote inscribed on the statue makes the humble pastor sound too arrogant.
“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” King told Ebeneezer Baptist Church two months before he died in 1968. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.”
“The sermon was so powerful that the designers of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington selected those lines to be inscribed on the memorial’s towering statue of the civil rights leader,” The Washington Post reported today, but a design change led to a paraphrase instead. The inscription on the side of the statue reads: I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.
“The quote makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit,” said Angelou, who consulted on the project. “He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply.” Ever the wordsmith, Angelou added, ” The ‘if’ clause that is left out is salient. Leaving it out changes the meaning completely.”
Angelou isn’t the first writer to make this observation. Last week, Washington Post editor Rachel Manteuffel voiced a similar complaint. “An ‘if’ clause is an extraordinarily bad thing to leave out of a quote. If I had to be a type of cheese, being Swiss is best,” she wrote. “I say, let’s undo the mistake. Let’s get the chisels back out. Let’s remember the words he chose and not let this be one more way we’ve failed King.”
Should Rev. Billy Graham Get a Statue Too?
“Not now,” wrote Charlotte Observer journalist Tim Funk at his Funk on Faith blog, but after Graham goes to his heavenly reward “a statue of this Charlotte-born evangelist — pastor to presidents — would be a popular addition to Our Nation’s Capital,” Funk said. But the U.S. Capital would be a more appropriate location than the National Mall, which he said should be “reserved for titans who profoundly changed America: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and MLK.”
Funk chose the capital building because each state is allowed to donate likenesses of two of its native children and he thinks two former North Carolina governors have had their day under the dome. There’s precedent too. Hawaii, California, Utah, and Illinois have all donated statuary of religious figures, said Funk.
What do you think? Does the King paraphrase make a humble preacher sound arrogant? Should Rev. Graham be similarly honored?
It was 1984 when members of Martin Luther King Jr’s fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, conceived the idea for a memorial to the iconic civil rights leader. Today, their dream became reality when the King memorial opened to the public on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
Let the Celebration Begin
Urban Faith will be there Sunday when the memorial is dedicated, but the five-day Week of Dedication begins Wednesday with a formal dinner, followed by a concert Thursday, a women’s luncheon Friday, a Kennedy Center celebration Friday night, and a youth event, a Dream Gala and a prayer service Saturday. Tickets to these events can be purchased on the memorial website.
Sunday’s dedication begins with a musical tribute at 8:30 a.m. The dedication ceremony is scheduled for 11:00 am, and a concert is slated for 2:00 p.m. Sunday’s events are free and open to the public.
Update: At 7:30 p.m. on August 25, the memorial foundation announced that the dedication ceremony will be postponed until a date in September or October due to severe weather concerns. Saturday’s 10:00 a.m. prayer service will be the final dedication event this week.
Verbal and Virtual Tours
In an extensive report about the memorial, The Root described it like this: “Bordering Washington, D.C.’s Tidal Basin between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, a 30-foot granite sculpture of the prominent civil rights activist looms. It’s flanked by a crescent-shaped wall inscribed with 14 excerpts from some of King’s most notable sermons and speeches. Further enhancing the site are 182 cherry blossom trees, which will reach full bloom each April, the month of King’s death. And the memorial’s street address, 1964 Independence Avenue, references the 1964 Voting Rights Act, a milestone of the civil rights movement.”
Diversity Debuts at the Mall
“This is going to be a first in two different ways — it’s the first memorial on the National Mall to honor a man of peace, and a man of color,” Harry Johnson Sr., president and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation, told The Root. “Now the Mall as we know it, the great land on which we honor our heroes, will be diversified much like this country.”
But the monument has not been without controversy, The Huffington Post reported last month. Not only is it 11 feet taller than the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, but members of the sculpting community have objected to the choice of Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin, who they say made King’s features appear too Asian. King’s son Martin Luther King III told USA Today, however, that the memorial is a better reflection of his father than most of the ones he’s seen.
Rep. John Lewis Reflects
NPR was there when when the scaffolding around the memorial came down and talked to Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), who spoke at the March on Washington in 1963. “I was moved to tears,” said Lewis.
The Anniversary of a Dream
Four hundred thousand people are expected to attend the dedication, according to The Huffington Post. It will be held on the 47th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
What do you think of the King memorial and its significance? Will you attend the celebrations?