The March Resumes
June 11, 2018
For the fifth week of the Poor People’s Campaign I made my way to Nashville again bright and early the morning of June 11. Today’s themes are housing, education and living wage. I have committed to stand for Civil Disobedience again this week as numbers were a bit thin according to Beth Foster’s reckoning over the weekend. The weather appears relatively mild, temps in low 90s with chance of thundershowers in afternoon.
I was excited that John Ashworth ( the executive director of LSP Memphis ) has been invited to speak today. I had previewed a draft of his talk, and as always with John, it is a zinger! Lora Chatfield and I are the only representatives participating from LSP. Lora has been remarkably faithful participating every week and submitting to arrest on three occasions so far. She is nobly honoring her brother who held key leadership in civil rights activities of 1960s—serving with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee.
The drive to Nashville was uneventful except for getting afoul of my google map trying to find Christ Cathedral. Our group eventually arrived shortly before noon and we began sorting our wits and strategizing for the day’s work. The theme for the week was “The Foundations of Tennessee are stolen labor, stolen land, and not much has changed.” Our focus was on education, living wage, jobs and housing. We noted that 51 percent of Tennessee work force makes less than $15 per hour. There are 55,000 persons in our state prisons. We have 8,300 homeless persons, and one million receiving food stamps.
Our direct action for the day following the rally on the Plaza was to memorialize the 15 slaves who had worked to erect the state capitol building in 1847. Their lives and labors had gone unrecognized. The plan was to remember these 15 by planting crosses for each on the capitol lawn and demanding they be remembered and honored in the capitol itself. After each cross was planted we were to spray in chalk “Built By Slave Labor”. Names as we had them were Lewis, Daniel, Robert, John, Parker, Dang, Bill, John G. John, Andrew, Jim, and two additional men whose names were lost to history. Their labor along with prison inmates was sold to the government for a year for the construction. Names of the architect are enshrined as well as General Nathan Bedford Forrest. The only acknowledgment of the slaves is a plaque which reads these “enslaved were loaned to the state for two years…and they quarried and transported limestone for the Capitol”.
Our leaders made deft and secretive preparations to avoid police authority interrupting our action while at the same time including media coverage. We proceeded to the plaza for the rally at 2PM. A larger crowd by my reckoning than what we had two weeks ago. It was vigorously led by speakers addressing underpaid workers in both education and businesses. John Ashworth our very capable CEO of LSP—Memphis gave a rousing talk connecting the dots of the systems of slavery, Reconstruction Era terrorist lynchings and current problems of mass incarceration and inadequate working conditions which plague our society—and deny EVERYBODY HAS A RIGHT TO LIVE.
Our group left in solemn procession soon after 3PM and moved to the lawn of the capitol evading most police and troopers. Within minutes we had planted our crosses and spelled out the lettering; BUILT BY SLAVE LABOR. My cross marker was for John G. I was 8 in line for letter S—all carefully choreographed.
As we made our way back up the hill to the capitol building itself, it was reported that grounds keepers came behind us and using weed eaters removed all our lettering. However we retained our crosses as we marched up the hill---someone estimated at least 400 steps around to the main entry to the capitol building. We congregated at the door. The plan was for action leader Beth Foster to say we would not leave until memorials were established for these 15 workers.
But before that could happen we were immediately arrested by state troops saying we had vandalized state property. Within 15 minutes all of us were cuffed and marshalled into the ante room, ironically where hung a large portrait of one of the two state governors from Memphis—the Honorable Don Sundquist. Very soon we were marched outside and placed in paddy wagons—eight males and one transgender in one and women in the other. Apparently our legal watch dogs had trouble finding out where we were to be taken, but they did learn we were to be processed at a mobile site close to the city homeless shelter. There we remained tightly shackled for perhaps as long as an hour and a half.
I was again blessed with great company! Adam, Martin, Bill , Joe Fennell from Memphis, Hunter from Nashville, Athanasios from Knoxville, and Kaitlan. We sang , more the rest than me, most of the time to keep our spirits up. Bill was particularly concerned about this 78 year old pastor who might pass out or die. Bill insisted that the temp was 110 degrees. I won’t argue. When they did open the doors, Bill insisted I go first. They processed us tediously over the next 45 minutes. As we were released, we repaired to a parking lot nearby where jail support volunteers retrieved and returned us to Christ Church.
Reports from the women were more alarming than for us. Apparently one person nearly passed out and police in charge were oblivious to her condition. But once out she rallied without any complications. We were cited for vandalism under $1000 and instructed to return for booking and processing on July 22 or thereabouts.
All arrested and released made it back to Christ Church, licked our wounds, got water, munched on sandwiches and eventually debriefed with our leaders and legal team. Overall a sense of accomplishment pervaded, though this crew sustaining arrest was probably more roughly handled than most prior weeks. The consensus was that sheriff and state patrol were not as savvy as Metro Police had been. To date we had been part of a nationwide endeavor of over 2000 persons across most state capitols who had voluntarily submitted to arrest in behalf of the Poor Peoples Campaign.
My main regret was that I was only one of two United Methodists I knew of that had participated in the Nashville direct action this day. Last week I missed the march as I attended sessions of the Memphis Annual Conference in Paducah Kentucky. Sensing some urgency about the March and receiving a penetrating blast email for Dr. Susan-Henry-Snow, our General Secretary of Church and Society about the campaign, I emailed our bishop, the conference connectional minister, and my own district superintendent. To date I have received no reply from them. A colleague clergy friend lamented, “It's so sad that our Episcopal Area is so caught up in our survival anxiety that we can't see the urgency of the poor around us.”
I regret closing on that note. But the circumstance speaks for itself. It was immensely gratifying to be surrounded by caring folk of all strips and convictions. It was humbling to know that bunch of guys –of diverse beliefs or even no beliefs could have such a sense of humor and song in a paddy wagon with temperatures over 100. The commitment of those in leadership and the rank in file who put their bodies on the line is to be commended. I have no hesitancy in discerning God’s hand at work remembering the poor and forgotten. We are a part of that program Jesus inaugurated as recorded in Luke; “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”.
God bless my brothers and sisters on the March.