I was ankle-deep in mud, my clammy hands in knots as i looked for her brown-haired head. The crowd was making itself a Red Sea, an aisle split down the middle of rainbow flags and Have Mercy placards. “It’s not that bad,” the lady next to me was saying. “The handcuffs hurt, but the officers are all real polite. What’s her name?”
“Hannah.” I replied, still trying to get tippy-toed height to catch her eye. “Her name’s Hannah. She’s in the white stole.”
My mom, freshly-turned 50 and a lifelong goody-two-shoes, was about to get arrested.
There was a man at the podium bringing down the house with prayers for healing and reprimands for the NC Legislature’s racist policies. Rev. Barber, president of the NC NAACP stood directly in front of us, fingers tapping on his waiting microphone and looking solemn. Focused. His disgust at the NC Legislature calling the 1965 Voting Rights Act a “headache” rang in my ears.
In February of 1965, in Marion, Alabama, one of the most profound but least known civil rights marches took place. James Orange, a member of the SCLC, had been arrested for organizing a voter-registration drive. 400 people had gathered in the Zion Methodist Church in Marion to walk, peacefully, in protest of the arrest. A police blockade met their walk, wherein 50 state troopers descended wielding clubs on the unarmed crowd.
Jimmie Lee Jackson, a US Army veteran, was among the crowd. He took refuge in a café, where he was beaten and shot twice by state troopers. He was trying to protect his mother. He died from his injuries 8 days later.
Jimmie Lee Jackson was the first martyr killed in the fight for the Voting Rights Act.
And Governor McCrory has called this act “a headache.” In the same week that the US Supreme Court has, in the words of Justice Ruth Ginsburg, thrown out the umbrella in the midst of a rainstorm, the very reason the Voting Rights Act came to pass is under fire. The North Carolina Legislature is threatening to pass a Voter ID law under the so-called “Restore Confidence in Government Act.” The same act that would restrict/eliminate early voting – a tool used predominantly by students and racial minorities.
And the Legislature does so in the same breath that denies 17,000 unemployed NC citizens their unemployment benefits, what Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman calls a “war on the unemployed.” And refuses to expand Medicaid. Riding on the heels of last year’s viciously minded Amendment 1, which mandated the only legal union recognized by the state was a marriage between a man and a woman – denying rights to victims of domestic violence in unwed partnerships, same-gender couples, and anyone not wed in the eyes of the State.
And this is only the beginning of our grievances with these elected officials.
Last Monday, Jonathan and i sang our voices hoarse in front of the North Carolina Legislative Building. We’d gone to the growing Moral Monday movement with our friend Aaron, each bearing a sign condemning cuts to public school funds and demands for racial equality under the law. These gatherings are headed by the NAACP but comprise of every body of people from labor unions to Planned Parenthood volunteers to more clergy of all faiths than you could shake a Eucharistic loaf at.
Last Tuesday, my mother worked at her church’s food pantry – as she does almost every Tuesday. She goes, as the pastor, to pray with the people who gather for the food they need to feed their families. In her own words,
“[…] nothing in my life compares to what I hear in prayer time every Tuesday night. Last week, when I asked for prayer requests someone told me she was peeing in a can in her house because she couldn’t afford to have her septic tank cleaned out. The toilet was all stopped up, she said. Her prayer was that through God’s mercy SOMEONE would help her and her family out. […] And the week before I prayed with a Latina woman whose son was being deported. Her tears dripped on my hand as I offered up a begging prayer for safety and mercy. What else was I to do?? I just didn’t know. I was so angry at our immigration laws and our sense of nationhood that supports them. I confess I was having a hard time loving the Pharisee in that moment…..but I prayed anyway and that prayer changed me.”
So yesterday, as i stood ankle-deep in mud, my mother clamped her hands in prayer and began to walk through that Red Sea. She began to walk for the women she prayed with on Tuesday, for her LGBTQ friends and family, for the unemployed and the suffering. I caught sight of her before she saw me.
In my head, i was still rubbing her arm at the legal briefing, singing and chanting not one step back! In my head, she was my Southern-lady mother who grew up on a farm in the rural south, a woman whose refusal to stand for oppression was born out of an acute understanding of what it means to be oppressed.
And then my eyes were full of her, full of her scared but determined face. Around me everyone yelled their thanks, their praise, their you-are-a-hero shouts.
We met each other’s gaze, each of us weeping with pride and humility and worry, and then she was gone.
Walking the gauntlet, she’d tell us later in front of the Wake County Detention Center. Walking into a building where they sang “Amazing Grace” and quietly were escorted, cuffed, out. Walking into a building where she would crack jokes with the police officers. She wrote later her heralding as a hero juxtaposed sharply with feeling like “an insignificant sacrifice.”
My mother had a lot of privilege in getting arrested. Her job is not at stake, she didn’t have to post bail or even worry that her time in the Detention Center would linger longer than the night. She, praise Mother Mary, did not face the same fate as Jimmie Lee Jackson. The police officers that arrested her did not beat her with clubs.
We are white, cisgendered, middle-class American citizens. And we know that this gives us undeserved privilege often at the expense of people of color, trans* people, people without such job security or citizenship. We pray for a day when radical equality exists among all humanity.
We are not protesting as a means for speaking for people who cannot speak for themselves – marginalized people have their own voices that must be listened to. Not at all. We protest with uniquely our own voices, voices that are allies and amplifiers and advocates and women who won’t stand for such sexism, racism, homophobia, and greed. We protest next to signs that read: Non-theists have morals too! We protest knowing that the arrest of over 650 people now 9 weeks into these gatherings are not going to turn the tide overnight. We protest knowing our own humanness, our own frailty. But we protest, and we protest loudly.
She wrote: “I didn’t go to this protest because I dislike republicans. I don’t. It wasn’t because I love democrats. They, too, are politicians. Who I love and who I vote for every time is this God-human Jesus. I LOVE the politics of Jesus. I am smitten with his curious ability to love the leper AND the Pharisee. I want to be like that!! People like that can never keep their mouths shut!”
And i, i am grateful i have a mother who won’t keep quiet. Who practices what she preaches – literally. Who on her unsteady feet walked into a building where she knew she would face arrest. Who practices meek boldness, fierce conviction, and humble love.
That, truly, is the greatest privilege of them all.
For more on Marion, Selma, and a theological approach to the Civil Rights Movement, i highly recommend Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice From the Civil Rights Movement to Today by Charles Marsh to provide a comprehensive overview. For more on civil disobedience, nonviolence, and the history of theologically-led political action, i recommend A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. edited by James M. Washington.