Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is author of Strangers at My Door and co-author, with Rev. William J. Barber II, of The Third Reconstruction. He lives in Durham, N.C., where he co-founded the Rutba House, a house of hospitality. He is also the director of School for Conversion.

Posts By This Author

The Second Career of James Crow, Esq.

Our lawyers have made a strong case this week that the voter ID component of this legislation places an unnecessary and undue burden on voters — especially poor and African-American voters. We will ultimately win this fight in the courts. But this case is about much more than defeating voter ID laws. It is about a central question of 21st-century American politics: is a multiethnic democracy possible?

A Politics Beyond Fear

The Value of Fusion Friendships
Moral Mondays March in Raleigh, N.C. on Feb. 8, 2014

Moral Mondays March in Raleigh, N.C. on Feb. 8, 2014. EPG_EuroPhotoGraphics / Shutterstock.com

Since the Republican presidential front-runner announced after San Bernardino that he would close America’s borders to Muslims, a debate has ensued about what “radicalization” means and how far we as a nation are willing to go to protect ourselves from it. So-called liberals (and even some in the Republican party’s mainstream) have said, “Not all Muslims have been radicalized.” To this Donald Trump retorts, “Until we know which ones have been, let’s keep them all out.” The unquestioned consensus in America’s public square is that we can only be safe by figuring out who the un-American terrorists are and getting rid of them.

But where we're from in North Carolina, we should not be so naïve. We have a disproportionate share of homegrown terrorists.

Twelve Years for a Paintbrush

We can't understand race today without understanding prisons.
sakhorn / Shutterstock

Sakhorn / Shutterstock

EARLY ONE SUNDAY MORNING, I drive to the Durham Correctional Center to pick up Greg. He’s spent the past 16 months at a state prison down east, working overtime in the kitchen so he could get out six weeks early. A few days ago, the Department of Corrections transferred him to this local minimum-security facility. Greg knows the place well. He’s walked out of here more times than he can count.

“Feel good to be out?” I ask as we walk through the gate of the chain-link fence, nodding goodbye to the guards. “You know it does,” Greg says, his back straight and his eyes fixed on the horizon. He’s relishing this taste of freedom.

But Greg knows this pleasure is fleeting. As good as it might feel to walk through the gate and hop in a car, leaving prison doesn’t mean you get to leave this part of your life behind.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, more than 2.4 million Americans are locked behind bars (and 12 million cycle through local jails each year). At any given time, some 6 million Americans are caught up in the criminal justice system—if not behind bars, then checking in with a parole officer who can carry them back to jail for the smallest of transgressions. Like Greg, a disproportionate number of those impacted by the U.S. criminal justice system are African American.

Even if you walk out of the gate like Greg, time served, you still have to deal with the debts that ruined your credit while you were locked away. You still have to rebuild relationships that were cut off because you spent the past decade behind bars. You still have to check the box on almost every job application that says you’re a convicted felon.

I live in a home named Rutba House, where we have opened our doors to friends like Greg who are coming home from prison. Doing so has helped me see that our country’s original sin of race-based slavery has shifted its shape again in the 21st century. As the Black Lives Matter movement has tried to make clear on America’s streets, race still matters. But in light of the fact that African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, we cannot understand race in America today without understanding prisons.

Will Evangelicals Welcome Pope Francis? The Good News Depends on It

Philip Chidell / Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis on Easter Sunday 2013 in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Photo via Philip Chidell / Shutterstock.com

As evangelical preachers in the American South, we’re excited to welcome our brother, Pope Francis, to the U.S.

We want to be explicit in our evangelical welcome because so many who claim to be evangelical are criticizing the pope for being political and not preaching orthodox theology.

The Voting Rights Act’s Jubilee: A Necessary Interruption

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II., at the mass meeting in Winston-Salem. Photo by Phil Fonville.

NC NAACP vs. McCrory is a necessary interruption to the institutionalized racism that is killing black and brown people. For all the talk around “black lives matter,” Rev. Barber warns, we are in danger of only affirming that black death matters if we accept that the martyrs of Charleston deserve nothing more than the removal of a Confederate flag from their state house. Yes, the flags should come down. But if they go away while the unjust laws remain, then it may be even harder for us to see that the root of injustice is in an imbalance of power.

And the fundamental power of citizenship in this country is still the franchise.

Born Suspect

This isn't a story about the death penalty. It's about life interrupted, making a new world possible.
BornSuspect

ON A COOL NIGHT in spring 2006, I knelt with a half-dozen friends on the driveway of North Carolina’s maximum-security prison. When officers came to inform us we were trespassing, we asked if they would join us in prayer against the scheduled execution of Willie Brown. Though one officer thanked us for doing what he could not, we were arrested and carried off to the county jail. Willie Brown died early the next morning.

But this isn’t an article about the death penalty.

At the county jail that evening nearly a decade ago, I was fingerprinted, strip-searched, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, and processed into the general population of an overcrowded cell block. When I walked onto the block, I was greeted almost immediately by a 20-something African-American man who asked me, “What the hell are you doing here?” As I summarized the events of the previous evening that had led to my arrest, he decided I was teachable. “You wanna know how I knew you weren’t supposed to be here?” he asked. “’Cause everybody else in here I knew before they got here. We’re all from the same hood.”

“They only kill people like us,” my teacher at the county jail told me that day. “The train that ends at death row starts here.”

The Long History of Sexual Baiting in America’s Effort to Extend Civil Rights

Photo via REUTERS / Tami Chappell / RNS

President Barack Obama, U.S. Rep. John Lewis and former President George W. Bush. Photo via REUTERS / Tami Chappell / RNS

From Ava DuVernay’s award-winning film to President Obama’s speech at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, America has remembered Selma this year. We have honored grass-roots leaders, acknowledged the sacrifices of civil rights workers and celebrated the great achievement of the Voting Rights Act. At the same time, we have recalled the hatred and fear of white supremacy in 1960s Alabama. But we may not have looked closely enough at this ugly history.

Even as we celebrate one of America’s great strides toward freedom, the ugliest ghosts of our past haunt us in today’s “religious freedom” laws.

Many able commentators have pointed out the problem of laws that purport to protect a First Amendment right to religious freedom by creating an opportunity to violate other people’s 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law. But little attention has been paid to the struggle from which the 14th Amendment was born — a struggle that played out in Selma 50 years ago and is very much alive in America’s statehouses today.

We cannot understand the new religious freedom law in Indiana and others like it apart from the highly sexualized backlash against America’s first two Reconstructions.

Freedom Summer Volunteers Inspired by More than Just Idealism

Heather Booth plays guitar for Fannie Lou Hamer during the Freedom Summer, Mississippi, 1964. Creative Commons:Wallace Roberts.

On June 2, 1964, while hundreds of Freedom Summer volunteers were still finishing their training in Oxford, Ohio, three civil rights workers went missing in Neshoba County, Miss.

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee field secretary Bob Moses was charged with leading the project that would organize poor, black Mississippians to challenge the power structure of the South and upset the Democratic National Convention.

Moses knew from his experience in Mississippi that James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, who had left the day before to investigate a church burning in Philadelphia, Miss., would never be found alive. Moses’ responsibility that evening was to tell the young recruits who planned to spend their summer registering voters in Mississippi that they could meet the same end.

What happened next surprised some. In small circles, the young volunteers sat and talked. Soon, they started singing.

Botched Oklahoma Execution Reveals Self-Deception

Courtesy of OK.gov

Courtesy of OK.gov

At 6:23 p.m. yesterday, the state of Oklahoma initiated its effort to kill Clayton D. Lockett. Twenty minutes later, after being declared unconscious by a physician, Lockett cried out, "Oh, man," writhing in pain. Addled by this unexpected display of pain, one of the executioners said, "Something’s wrong." Soon after, the window to the observation room was covered and media were escorted out of the room.

A state official later reported that Mr. Lockett died of a heart attack at 7:06pm.

The fact that this unexpected scene was preceded by months of arguments by lawyers about the constitutionality of resuming executions in Oklahoma guarantees that a debate about the death penalty will ensue. Those who have argued that this ultimate form of punishment is "cruel and unusual" will make last nights scene their case in point. The Governor of Oklahoma has already declared that a thorough investigation of what went wrong will take place before any other executions go forward. Privately, in conversations at home and on their computers, many will say, "Did he suffer? Sure. But why shouldn’t he after what he did." Most national polls show that support for vs. opposition to the death penalty is about 50/50. Both sides will have plenty of people to argue.

But I think it would be the greatest of tragedies if we did not notice that what happened in Oklahoma last night reveals perhaps our deepest national self-deception — that, no matter what goes wrong, we will fix it because we are in control.

'Forward Together, Not One Step Back!'

A grassroots resistance movement emerges in North Carolina.

Subscribe