I was arrested today in Washington, D.C., for insisting that the federal government defend the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and protect Americans’ voting rights.
As a pastor, a leader of the Forward Together Moral Movement, and president of Repairers of the Breach, I do not take arrest lightly. Any time we see a problem, our first response must be to understand it. Nothing is worse than being loud and wrong. After doing our homework, we petition our elected officials with a concrete plan to address problems rooted in public policy.
Negotiation is the art of politics, and we are morally obliged to negotiate for the common good. Only when those in power refuse to listen are we compelled to risk arrest — taking the suffering for their stubborn refusal upon ourselves — in order to put the issue before the people in a democratic society.
Today is the first time I have ever been arrested in Washington, D.C. I came for the same reason Southern political leaders petitioned President Grant to send troops in the 1870s — for the same reason Dr. King called upon Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to enforce federal law in the 1960s. I came because the interposition and nullification of extremists is blocking a Third Reconstruction in America today.
Ten years ago in my home state of North Carolina, a fusion coalition of black, white, and brown, rich and poor, gay and straight, documented and undocumented, young and old, and Republican, Democrat, and independent people joined together in the Forward Together Moral Movement to press for a moral agenda in state government. We were challenging a Democratic governor and a Democratic majority in the state house at the time. But we were clear: some things aren’t left or right, liberal or conservative. Some things are simply right or wrong.
Between 2006 and 2008, we learned something important about the South: When people who’ve been divided by the Southern Strategy come together, we are a beautifully diverse majority. Voter turnout in 2008 changed old patterns in North Carolina, breaking the “Solid South” for the first time in four decades. Our coalition had awakened democracy.
Almost immediately, we were under attack.
The moneyed elites whose power we challenged were not ignorant. They understood how the system works, and they had a good “ground game.” Starting at the county level, they invested unprecedented amounts of money in school board and county commissioner races. The first time I was ever arrested was in the Wake County school board’s chambers, standing with students and parents who refused to surrender the schools they love to extremists. We won that struggle, and the majority was voted out in the next election.
But the struggle at the state house has been longer and harder because state legislatures draw the voting districts that determine who will represent us there. Having mounted a takeover with mystery money, state representatives redrew districts in 2011. We challenged them in court immediately, but federal courts move slowly. Five years later, we won our challenge to changes in U.S. Congressional districts earlier this year. Our challenge to North Carolina House and Senate districts wasn’t heard in federal court until last week.
Extremists across the South have acted fast. They’ve re-written tax codes, dismantled public education, refused Medicaid expansion, cut essential services to poor and working people, and codified discrimination, often in the name of “religious liberty.” All of this they have done with full knowledge that they do not represent the people nor the general welfare. Which is why, after the Supreme Court’s Shelby County v Holder decision gutted the Voting Rights Act in the summer of 2013, North Carolina passed the worst voter suppression bill in the country.
This we have also challenged in federal court. But I was compelled to petition Congress today because we cannot afford to wait for the courts. They will rule in our favor, but too much damage will have already been done.
For the past 1027 days, Congress has refused to restore the Voting Rights Act. In an election year when more than $10 billion will be spent to win votes, the U.S. attorney general has less power to protect voting rights than she would have had in 1965. Across the South we have seen the worst attacks on voting rights since the 19th century. And Congress has done nothing.
We have done our homework. We understand the problem, and we have a solution. We have petitioned North Carolina’s delegation to Congress. We have testified on Capitol Hill. We have done everything we can to negotiate a way for voting rights protections to be restored. But our appeals have been met with silence and inaction from those in power.
Congress could act today to pass the Voting Rights Restoration Act. But they will not.
So I am putting my body on the line for voting rights in America today. As a Christian pastor, I know that every human being is created in the image of God. When African Americans were counted as three-fifths of a person by the Constitution, that was a denial of the imago Dei. When so-called "Redeemers" attacked and intimidated black voters after the passage of the 15th amendment, that was denial of the imago Dei. When women were denied the franchise, that was a denial of the imago Dei.
Too many people have put their bodies on the line for me not to join them. Amelia Boynton and Amzie Moore risked their lives to register voters in the Jim Crow South. Fannie Lou Hamer lost her job and was beaten in the Winona County Jail for registering to vote. Medgar Evers died for this. Jimmy Lee Jackson died for this. Viola Liuzzo and James Reeb died for this. When we march for voting rights, we march through the blood of the slaughtered who laid down their lives for voting rights. But we also join them in the hope that “trouble won’t last always.” Truth, though crushed to earth, will rise again.
The good news is that democracy has been awakening in America for some time. The civil rights and labor communities have been coming together. Black Lives Matter and the RaiseUp campaign for workers are coming together. Occupy veterans and climate change activists are coming together. The immigrants rights movement and the Fight for 15 are coming together. This is what we’ve learned in North Carolina: when we all get together, it scares the people who’ve had power. They could ignore us when we were all crying out on our own. But now that we’re coming together, they have to fight us. They will fight hard and they will fight mean. But we will win. Moral movements rarely have money, power, or influence on our side. But though it may be long, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. Our work is simply to stay together, arm-in-arm, marching on ‘til victory is won.