Bobby Rush hoodie protest and the challenge of the civil rights movement in 21st century America


Patrick Mulchay, center, joins other congregants in song during a service at Middle Collegiate Church in New York, Sunday, March 25, 2012. (Seth Wenig/AP)

At first, the nationwide ‘‘hoodie’’ protest over Trayvon Martin’s death — in which Americans donned sweatshirts in solidarity with the slain teenager and his family — felt shallow and reflexive, a consumerist reaction. What’s this? I wondered. Is Abercrombie & Fitch now in the business of underwriting our moral outrage?

Then I saw Bobby Rush’s performance Wednesday on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives and changed my mind. Rush didn’t join the hoodie protest; he defined it. At 65, Rush is a 10-term Democratic congressman from Chicago’s South Side and an advocate against gun violence. His own son was killed before he turned 30 in a street shooting.

In the House, Rush shed his suit jacket and revealed beneath it a plain gray hoodie. He lifted the hood onto his head and put on a pair of sunglasses. Thus adorned in the uniform of the American teenager, Rush read from the Bible as the presiding officer, Gregg Harper, a two-term Republican from Mississippi, tried to silence him.

For those who haven’t seen it, the exchange went something like this.

“Just because a person wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum,” Rush pronounced. And then he started to read from the book of Micah — “to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” — as Harper sharply banged his gavel.

“The member will suspend. The member will suspend,” Harper commanded.

And so it continued, for three or so minutes: the black man reading from Scripture, the white man insisting on decorum.

The scene will be rehashed in the media as grandstanding on Rush’s part (and surely that is partially true), but the image that lingers is that of one man trying to silence another whose grief and principles led him to protest.

In his new book, “The Cross and the Lynching Tree,” the theologian James Cone wrestles with the question of how, during the early years of the 20th century, American blacks could continue to believe in the hope of Jesus while American whites continued to kill their black neighbors and go praise Jesus on Sunday. Rush enacted all that tragic history and more in one moment, with Harper as his unwitting accomplice.

I happened to meet that same afternoon with the mega-pastor T.D. Jakes, and our conversation inevitably turned to Trayvon Martin. Jakes — who has a church in Dallas with 30,000 members and 10 times that many followers on Twitter — is known for his charisma, his earth-shaking preaching, and his uplifting message of self-empowerment. Last year, he gave the homily at the White House Easter service, and his recent book “Let It Go” has earned the imprimatur of Oprah Winfrey herself.

Unlike Bobby Rush, Jakes is not usually regarded as a social-protest kind of guy.

But Jakes was moved to write an outraged opinion piece in the Huffington Post that decried what he saw as the race-based killing. “It is evolving into a case of two justices,” he wrote. “Separate and, like Jim Crow laws, far from equal.”

As an urban pastor, Jakes sees cases like Trayvon Martin all the time, he says; he counsels the shattered parents. “I don’t get to read it in the paper. It’s everywhere. It’s absolutely everywhere. Kids innocent and not innocent are being murdered every day. Something’s got to change.”

“Speaking for me and my five kids and my grandkids, I’m worried,” Jakes says. “We need to understand that as a nation we cannot have one group doing very well and the other group not progressing at all and have a sustainable society. If everybody’s not doing better, then no one is safe.”

Civil rights-era activists still long for the marching and singing and sit-ins of the 1960s and dismiss contemporary attempts as lightweight. But Jakes believes Twitter and Facebook work as well. “Social media is changing the way we amass public outcry,” he says. The pastor has a point. Twenty-four hours after Bobby Rush put on his hoodie on the House floor, half a million people had seen his principled protest on YouTube.

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