This election year, America faces interlocking crises—a global health crisis, economic collapse, and systemic racism. Even as we live in fear of disease and economic ruin, we have had to watch the on-camera murders of unarmed Black people by officers who have sworn to protect and serve us. So many of us have stood outside nursing homes and hospitals as our loved ones died inside, alone. In response, we are struggling with despair and asking, Dare we hope for profound change in our public life?
We are two people of faith, and we have done our best in our lives to serve poor and working people. We come from very different places and experiences, but at this moment we come together to lift up in place of the division and fear that President Trump offers a different vision—of hope and of love.
Americans must refuse to be divided against one another. Together, Black, white, and brown, Native and Asian, we as a people have in fact responded to the challenge of the coronavirus with sacrifice, solidarity, and newfound purpose. And the vast majority of Americans knew murder when they saw it this summer and supported tens of millions of our fellow citizens of every color who marched, protested, and went on strike to demand an end to police violence and the politics of death.
Our grief then leads us to ask, Why? Why must our nation endure so much unnecessary suffering? The answer lies in the dangerous marriage of greed and hate, and in its worst forms, a cult of death.
For that is where President Trump has led us openly and unabashedly, and that is where Mitch McConnell keeps us by stealth and subterfuge, blocking aid for the unemployed and safety rules for those who are working while he works tirelessly for liability protections and tax cuts for corporations.
In truth, this September our leaders have made our whole nation feel the way Birmingham, Ala., felt in September of 1963. Because as was true then, a better future is within our grasp. Our youth are casting off the terrible burden of racism and our working people are in the streets demanding an end to economic injustice. But our nation is burdened today, as Birmingham was then, with powerful people who prefer hatred and death to freedom and justice.
Fifty-seven years ago, Birmingham was about to be desegregated after a massive nonviolent campaign. In response, members of the Ku Klux Klan who were infected with the soul-killing virus of racism bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963, killing four girls who were on their way from Sunday School to the sanctuary for morning worship.
When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Birmingham to preach at the funeral of those four girls, King said every politician whose lips were dripping with racism was responsible for their death. King offered that the deaths of those girls said to each of us, “black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”
Today, just as in 1963, we need to hold politicians accountable for their part in causing so much grief and pain. But if we are to heal our country, we need to do more than change leaders. We need to take on a system of greed and of indifference to the poorest among us that has produced an avalanche of death and despair.
As leaders in the faith, civil rights, and labor movements of today, we know that the politics of division always benefit wealthy elites. And we know the politics of greed and hate must reach their end. Donald Trump and his Senate enablers have failed every American community. They have betrayed poor and working people over and over again, and they have shamefully sought to govern by attacking the most vulnerable among us—our communities that have been criminalized, over-policed, and blamed for their poverty.
No evil is extinguished unless good people act. We are calling everyone who has marched to challenge systemic racism to come together with poor and working people and the labor movement we have built to push this nation toward a more perfect union.
In this moment we must demand that Congress pass the Justice in Policing Act to hold police departments accountable. We must demand that Congress pass the HEROES Act to provide long overdue Covid-19 relief to our families and communities. And we must demand that Congress fund and protect voting rights for every American.
With the 2020 election season upon us, we must relearn the lesson of Birmingham, and we must vote like our lives depend on it. Because they do.
Thankfully, we know a force more powerful than hate and division. Today, the Jim Crow signs Bull Connor defended in Birmingham are gone, and the local airport is named after Fred Shuttlesworth, one of many local leaders who demonstrated the power of unity over fear and division. Those who fought for a genuine democracy in the past have left us an example for how we win now. We must honor their legacy with action. In this moment, we must come together and bring forth a new day for America.