The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Bobby Rush to retire after three decades in Congress but vows he is ‘not leaving the battlefield’

Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) speaks during a news conference in February 2020 about legislation that would make lynching a federal hate crime.
Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) speaks during a news conference in February 2020 about legislation that would make lynching a federal hate crime. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

By his own accounts, Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) has escaped death twice.

On a winter morning in December 1969, Rush said police shot down his door, the day after officers fatally shot Fred Hampton, a fellow Black Panther activist, in Chicago.

“But — by the grace of God — my family and I were not home,” Rush said.

More than four decades later, Rush battled cancer of the salivary gland. Ultimately his life was spared, but his speech patterns were permanently altered.

On Tuesday, Rush formally announced that he will not run for a 16th term in Congress, but vowed to continue his fight for racial justice and equity outside of Washington, citing his long history of “running to the fire” — and surviving.

“My faith tells me that there’s a reason I’m still here,” Rush said in a statement. “I am not leaving the battlefield. I am going to be an activist as long as I’m here in the land of the living, and I will be making my voice heard in the public realm — from the pulpit, in the community, and in the halls of power.”

Rush first won election to Congress in 1992 and will have served for three decades when he retires early next year. He is the only Democrat to have defeated Barack Obama, who unsuccessfully challenged him during Rush’s 2000 reelection bid; Obama later won a U.S. Senate seat and two terms as president. This year, Rush had been facing primary challenges from several Democrats, including activist Jahmal Cole and pastor Chris Butler.

Rush said Tuesday that he was not “cutting and running” and that his retirement from Congress was not driven by a fear of the upcoming midterm elections.

“For me, I have a higher calling and I am answering that higher calling: To continue my mission . . . from a different perspective, and from a different position,” Rush said at a news conference at Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ. The Chicago church was the site of the 1955 funeral of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Black boy whose brutal torture and murder in Mississippi sparked the civil rights movement.

Rush paid tribute to the church as a “sacred space” before his remarks Tuesday.

“On this very spot, our nation was forever changed. The tremendous courage of Mamie Till, Emmett’s mother, in keeping that casket open, will never, ever be forgotten nor diminished,” he said.

Rush is the 24th House Democrat to announce that he will not run for reelection this year or seek another office as the party faces tough odds to hold its majority.

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday, Rush said he arrived at his decision after a recent conversation with his 19-year-old grandson, Jonathan.

“I don’t want my grandchildren . . . to know me from a television news clip or something they read in a newspaper,” Rush told the newspaper. “I want them to know me on an intimate level, know something about me, and I want to know something about them. I don’t want to be a historical figure to my grandchildren.”

Rush helped found the Illinois Black Panther Party in the late 1960s and is a longtime civil rights activist. In 2012, he was escorted from the House floor for wearing a hoodie to protest racial profiling while calling for an investigation into the fatal shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

In recent years, Rush has introduced legislation that would make lynching a federal hate crime. He also has pushed the federal government to reveal files related to the 1969 killing of Hampton, a Black Panther activist targeted by an FBI informant and shot by police in Chicago.

“We want to bring light, a bright light, to a dark history of our nation. And I think it’s very timely and very important that we do it at this time,” Rush told The Washington Post in an interview last year on his search for answers about Hampton’s killing.

In a statement Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Rush’s “prayerful and powerful voice for justice in the House” would be missed.

“Since his early years as an organizer in the movement for civil rights, Congressman Rush never relented in his fight to lift up long-underserved communities of color in Chicago and across the country,” Pelosi said. “For nearly three decades, he has offered our Caucus fearless leadership to combat violence in our communities — from heinous hate crimes to the horrors of gun violence. And, as a senior Member on the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, he led the charge to protect Americans from dangerous consumer products and predatory lending practices.”

On Tuesday, Rush said he was proud of his accomplishments in Congress, particularly questions he asked as frequently the only Black member of various committees, but admitted that it could also be limiting. He spoke of a desire to broaden his horizons and continue organizing communities and pushing for justice outside of elected office.

“And I think I’ll be more effective, because I have the gift of a 75-year-old, and that’s wisdom,” Rush said.

Although his district leans strongly Democratic, the House Republican campaign arm nonetheless argued that his retirement shows that Democrats “are abandoning ship as fast as possible because they know their majority is doomed.”

“If Democrats thought their retirement crisis would get better over the holidays, they were wrong,” Mike Berg, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement.

Rush also announced last week that he had tested positive for the coronavirus, despite being fully vaccinated and having received his booster shot.

“I am feeling fine and currently have no symptoms. . . . As COVID-19 cases rise and the Omicron variant spreads throughout the nation, I encourage everyone who has not yet done so to get vaccinated and get boosted as soon as possible,” Rush said in a statement.

Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.