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

At first, the nationwide ‘‘hoodie’’ protest over Trayvon Martin’s death — in which Americans donned sweatshirts in solidarity with the … Continued

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.

Lisa Miller
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  • Benson

    Social media?

    All stories these days have a social media following, but this story was promoted primarily in the mainstream press.

    There have been multiple stories every day in the Washington Post, for example. Most of them with a clear bias against Zimmerman. Showing photos of Trayvon as a 12 year-old alongside a mug shot of Zimmerman, for example. I feel certain that Zimmerman would have been willing to provide different photo.

    Also, no discussion of social media should exclude Spike Lee’s inexcusable tweet of Zimmerman’s address. Turned out to be the wrong address, so an unrelated couple had to move to a hotel.

    Sorry, but while it’s clear that law enforcement needs to fully investigate Trayvon’s death, the media coverage of this story is NOT distinguished.

  • Benson

    Oh, and Congress members wearing hoodies in a populist reaction to the daily news isn’t distinguished, either.

  • nana4

    Media coverage of this story is, indeed, distinguished because it is reporting facts and evidence that the local police and state authorities responsible for investigating every homicide have NOT. Claiming self defense because of being engaged in a physical altercation with another in close contact, while alleging to have been pummeled by the victim, and being able to wrest one’s gun from a holster, shoot the victim at very close range, and emerge without a drop of blood all over the shooter’s person, is, frankly unbelievable, unless the EMS and police carry an extra change of clothing for Zimmerman, just in case, and jugs of water with which to clean himself, just in case.