April 17, 2016. The Post and Courier.
Then-Charleston Mayor Joe Riley barely kept his cool on stage at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center two years ago when moderators at the Nehemiah Action Assembly yanked the microphone away from his face.
Now the interfaith Charleston Area Justice Ministry, which coordinates the annual Nehemiah Action Assembly, has provoked the ire of North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey and Police Chief Eddie Driggers. Both men have declined multiple invitations to appear before 2,000-some people at the next assembly, where Justice Ministry members will rally against racially biased police practices.
Asked why, Driggers blasted the Justice Ministry’s “bullying tactics” and “sheer disregard to treat folks with common decency” in an email to The Post and Courier. Summey’s office derided the Justice Ministry’s “insular” views and accused the group of “chastising” the entire police department in a meeting last month.
The Nehemiah Action Assemblies are confrontational by design. The Charleston Area Justice Ministry formed in 2012 as an affiliate of the Miami-based Direct Action and Research Training Center to tackle such issues as youth unemployment, juvenile incarceration, early childhood education and wage theft. At the Justice Ministry’s annual assembly, public officials are asked a series of “yes” or “no” questions on whether they’d be willing to support the group’s policy proposals. The format leaves little room for public debate, and plenty for awkward moments.
“Tension,” explained DART board member Ron Luckey, a retired Lutheran pastor in Lexington, Ky., is integral to the process.
“It’s part of getting social change done,” Luckey said. “The problem with religious people is we’re not trained for tension; we’re raised to be nice and I think public officials are surprised when 2,000 Christians, Jews and others get a little pushy. One thing we’ve learned is the people who pay the price for being ‘nice’ are the people who continue to be marginalized and oppressed.”
And despite ruffling a few feathers, the Justice Ministry’s approach has yielded results: Following its first assembly in 2013, which Summey and Driggers both attended, all four local law enforcement agencies agreed to implement the state’s only “risk assessment instrument” to curtail nonviolent juvenile incarceration. Last year, the ministry convinced Charleston County Council to fund a wage-recovery program for low-income workers that went into effect in August.
The strength of the Nehemiah Action Assembly lies in its numbers. How do you ignore the will of 2,000 people?
“If you look at the track record, people have been going to city council meetings, making suggestions for years and years,” said the Rev. Joseph Darby, presiding elder in the South Carolina AME Church.“Power does not cede power without some sort of confrontation.”
History of activism
Churches, particularly black congregations, have a long and often bloody history as breeding grounds for social activism. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1816 in an act of protest against discrimination from white Methodist leaders.
In 1822, Denmark Vesey conceived what would have been the largest slave uprising in American history within the walls of Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church before a mob of angry whites burned it to the ground. During the civil rights era, black churches functioned as mobilization sites for activists’ organizing efforts. The historic 1965 Selma to Montgomery, Ala., march for voting rights started outside Brown Chapel AME Church.
“It’s not a stretch of the imagination to see what CAJM is doing,” said College of Charleston civil rights historian Jon Hale. “It’s a contemporary manifestation of the Southern Freedom Movement.”
The Direct Action and Research Training Center, founded in 1982, works with 20 congregation-based, interfaith organizations throughout Florida, Ohio, Kentucky, Kansas, Indiana, Virginia and, most recently, in South Carolina with the establishment of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry in 2012. The nonpartisan nonprofit supplies local groups with an organizational framework and a DART-employed community organizer to train clergy in direct action tactics and recruit new congregations. DART’s mission to address the root causes of injustice — not the symptoms — by holding public officials accountable to their communities draws from Scripture.
“Reading the Bible, you will hear over and over again God is not only concerned about people’s eternal salvation, but he is also concerned about their everyday living circumstances and arrangements. I’m compelled from my faith tradition to be involved to ensure people are treated fairly,” said DART board member the Rev. Joseph Owens, who has participated in 13 Nehemiah Assemblies as pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.
“When God sent Moses to go get his people free from Egypt, he didn’t just say bring them to worship. He said get them released from the bondage they were in.”
Of course, not every church shares DART’s politically orientated interpretation of the Bible.
The 30 diverse, interfaith congregations and organizations comprising the Charleston Area Justice Ministry skew progressive. Founding Justice Ministry co-president the Rev. Dow Sanderson of the Church of the Holy Communion recalls that some of the large downtown churches, such as St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s, didn’t show much interest in getting involved.
“There are some people that are so politically and theologically conservative that even the jargon or buzzwords give them a rash,” he said. Words like “community organizing” and “direct action.” Other congregations, while inspired by the pursuit for social justice, were turned off by the ministry’s confrontational methodology.
Steve Skardon, executive director of the nonprofit Palmetto Project and former vestry member of Grace Church Cathedral, said he was disappointed after attending the first Charleston Nehemiah Action Assembly in 2013 that featured persistent interrogations of Riley and then-Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley.
“The confrontational nature of it tends to, in my view, create barriers to solving problems, especially given the religious nature of the group,” Skardon said. “In Christianity and Judaism, our whole focus is on relationships, on building relationships and solving problems through finding common ground. This is just the opposite. It’s one group that has decided this is what we’re for — for this particular proposal — and we’re going to badger you and harass you and harangue you until you agree with our proposal.”
Grace Church Cathedral ultimately withdrew from the Justice Ministry, Skardon said, due to little active support from the congregation.
No ‘wild-eyed radicals’
Justice Ministry leaders reject accusations that they “bully” public officials, a common allegation intended to hurt the organizations’ credibility, according to DART, across all 20 cities where Nehemiah Action Assemblies are held.
They say the format of the assemblies starts with “yes” and “no” style of questioning to avoid handing officials a platform for political stump speeches, not to ramrod them with outrageous requests.
If an official answers “No,” that is followed up with “Why?” so that negotiation can take place on stage, organizers say. But the idea is for the Justice Ministry members to maintain control of the meeting, not the politicians.
Justice Ministry members meet with participating officials to discuss their proposals weeks before the assembly and provide them with a summary of the questions so they’re not surprised when they step on stage.
“Law enforcement doesn’t like to be questioned, and some municipal officials do not like to be questioned. They like to set the terms of the engagement and this one is especially tough on them,” Darby said. “This group is not a bunch of wild-eyed radicals. These are diverse folks from houses of worship who have done their homework and have solutions to offer.”
At Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church on Monday night, the Justice Ministry plans to ask the North Charleston and Charleston police departments to reduce the practice of investigatory stops and hire an external, independent police auditor to produce a one-time audit of the departments’ policing practices.
They also plan to request a permanent Independent Police Auditor’s office with civilian oversight modeled after similar offices in San Jose, Calif.; New Orleans; Eugene, Ore.; Austin, Texas; and Albuquerque, N.M.
Their requests, Justice Ministry leaders say, are based on more than 15,000 hours of volunteer research on evidence-based policy solutions to increasing police transparency and building community trust.
Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg is the only top city official who has committed to attending the upcoming Nehemiah Action Assembly beyond a handful of Charleston and North Charleston city council and school board members. Tecklenburg has been to an assembly before but only as an observer. He’ll sit in the hot seat Monday.
“I’m glad to go. They’ve invited me and the organization is concerned mostly about social justice, which is a deep concern of mine as well, so I’d like to engage in a dialogue with them about that,” Tecklenburg said. “My approach is very collaborative and to try to have a dialogue. I know their approach may not facilitate that as readily as some other approaches might, but I’m gonna try.”