Rallying for Justice

On Monday (Aug. 30), several organizations held a joint rally on the Missouri Capitol lawn in Jefferson City to demand freedom for two men prosecutors say were wrongly convicted but still behind bars: Kevin Strickland and Lamar Johnson. We introduced you to Johnson and his faith last week. And faith echoed throughout the rally as well.

U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, a Democrat whose district covers much of St. Louis, told Word&Way at the rally that she will keep fighting for prison reform and justice because she believes “my work is to love.”

“If my neighbor is hurting, it’s my job — if I know about it — it’s my job to make sure that I try to fix that hurt,” she explained. “The least that we should do is love all of humanity. And if you loving only means that you can love those of a particular stature, of a particular race, of a particular background, of a particular religion, then that’s not love at all.”

In her comments to Word&Way, Bush also criticized politicians who speak about their Christian faith but then don’t act to release wrongly-convicted men still in prison like Johnson and Strickland.

“At the end of the day, you know a tree by its fruit,” she said. “I have a problem with those folks who claim the Christian faith and don’t walk in the Christian values, all of the values. You can’t walk in some and then push away the others. … Using religion as a shield for your hatred? I can never walk with it. I know your fruit. I know who you are by the fruit that your tree bears.”

“We are here because we believe in freedom and we believe in justice,” Rev. Darryl Gray, a St. Louis pastor who represented event cosponsor the Progressive National Baptist Convention, said during the rally. “But we also understand that freedom has been denied, justice has been delayed.”

“We have prayed for justice. We have cried for justice. We have marched for justice. We have protested for justice. We have gone to jail for justice,” added Gray, who opened the rally in prayer before returning later to offer remarks. “We’ve met with the governor, who claims to be a good Baptist. We said, ‘Wait a minute, as another good Baptist, our Bible says, ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ Our Bible talks about forgiveness.’”

“You know why we’re here? Because injustice is here. Evil is here,” declared Rev. Phillip Duvall, who leads the social justice commission of the Missionary Baptist State Convention of Missouri, which also cosponsored the rally.

Pointing out that the rally attendees were standing between the Capitol and the Supreme Court, he added that “in a biblical narrative” they were there “because that’s where Pharaoh is.” Thus, he called on believers to not just “stand behind the stained glass windows” but also do the work of “preaching the gospel of justice and freedom.”

“We can’t sit back and just have prayer meetings,” Duvall added. “We’ve got to come outside of these church houses. We’ve got to come out in the street. … It’s time for us to put our trumpet to our mouth. It’s time to let the Good News ring.”

Several members of the National Organization of Exonerees spoke at the rally, with shirts recording how long they were wrongly imprisoned. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

Speakers at the rally pointed to the need for more legislative reforms beyond just the new law that just went into effect two days earlier to create a legal path for releasing wrongly-convicted individuals. State Rep. Richard Brown, a Democrat whose district covers part of the Kansas City area, argued such reforms should include providing compensation to those who are exonerated and released. After starting his remarks by reciting Psalm 119:1-5, Brown said he is “a faithful man and a man who believes in the power of prayer.”

“However, as a Christian man I believe that God wants us to do more. I believe he wants us to do what is within our power and our abilities,” Brown added. “We want justice for Kevin Strickland and Lamar Johnson and all who’ve been wrongly convicted.”

Rod Chapel, president of the Missouri NAACP, points back toward the Capitol as he discusses the need for legislative reforms to end what he called “more of that Jim Crow justice.” (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

Rev. Cassandra Gould, executive director of Missouri Faith Voices, argued people of faith need “to get in the way” to speak out for justice and “free all of God’s children.” She read from Isaiah 10 about “woe” to those “who make unjust laws” and “withhold justice from oppressed people.”

“We have to be the people that call that woe out. We can no longer be on the sidelines,” she argued. “So, I want to call out and call in all of the people of faith who’ve just been hanging out on the sidelines. We are not called to just be pallbearers, just show up after a tragedy and say some flowery words. We need to start to disrupt the death that is occurring in our prisons while people are languishing unjustly.”

Off to the side of the rally while another speaker addressed the crowd, several ministers prayed over Rep. Cori Bush. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

The rally closed with individuals marching across the street to the Missouri Supreme Court building to deliver a petition to the office of Attorney General Eric Schmitt. More than 60,000 people signed the petition urging freedom for Lamar Johnson. Schmitt, who is running for U.S. Senate next year, continues to fight the release of Johnson and Strickland.

Rally attendees walk up the steps of the Missouri Supreme Court building to visit Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

The rally was not the first advocacy effort on behalf of Johnson and Strickland, nor will it be the last. Organizers expressed excitement about the new law that created a path for freedom, but they insisted this should just be the first step.

“We’re hoping to increase the awareness,” Rev. Phillip Duvall of the Missionary Baptist State Convention of Missouri told Word&Way just before the rally started. “Hopefully this will generate some more energy and synergy to free Lamar Johnson. This is our preliminary step now that we’ve got an entrance back onto the highway of justice.”

Rev. Darryl Gray, who led the group up to the door of the Supreme Court building, is stopped by an official from entering. Eventually, a small group was allowed to enter to deliver the petition while others waited below on the sidewalk. (Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

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