Unitarian Universalist ministers from across the country gathered in two locations in Kansas City Tuesday evening to mark Juneteenth and to show solidarity with the Poor People’s Campaign.
“Juneteenth is the story of people who didn’t yet know they were free,” Janae “Justice” Gatson told the crowd of approximately 200 clergy who gathered on a plaza outside the Convention Center in Kansas City, Missouri, on June 19.
Gatson, an organizer for ACLU Missouri, explained that news of emancipation reached enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, much later than other communities, on June 19, 1865. A presidential proclamation and the end of the Civil War did not free people until they understood that they were free.
“It was people who were around them,” Gatson said, “people who were their allies, who kept talking to them, who kept speaking words of freedom, and singing songs of freedom until it resonated in their own hearts that they were [free]. Let me tell you, when you got it in your mind, I don’t care what chains they put on your physical body, they can’t stop you!”
Some of the ministers, who are in Kansas City for the professional conference of the UU Ministers Association and for the annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which starts Wednesday, had also been preparing for weeks to engage in civil disobedience in a second action Tuesday night in neighboring Kansas City, Kansas.
But local organizers quickly adjusted their plans over the weekend because of tragic events at the sites of both the planned rally and the planned action of “sacred disobedience.” On Thursday, June 14, three civilians died in two separate police involved shootings in Kansas City, Missouri—including two men shot by police on the Barney Allis Plaza between the Marriott Hotel and the convention center. The next day, an inmate reportedly gained access to a sheriff’s deputy’s handgun and killed the two deputies who were transporting him from the courthouse back to the jail in Kansas City, Kansas.
The Rev. Melissa Carvill-Ziemer, acting executive director of the UU Ministers Association, told clergy that “we have dialed back the heat to keep everybody safe.”
At a community center in Kansas City, Kansas, approximately 100 Unitarian Universalists, including members of several local congregations, gathered with local activists for a march to the Wyandotte County Courthouse. Instead of courting arrest, as they originally planned, “we are creating somber, beautiful space where there is not often somber, beautiful space,” said the Rev. Rose Schwab, minister of the Shawnee Mission UU Church in Overland Park, Kansas, and an organizer for the Poor People’s Campaign Kansas, who coordinated the rally and action with local activists.
Gatson led the activists in a libation ceremony honoring ancestors, activists, and victims of violence. The group then marched three blocks in silence to the Courthouse plaza for a 50-minute rally of songs and speeches.
At the courthouse steps, LJ Brackson described his family’s experience with the justice system. His 15-year-old niece D.H. is in jail, accused of murdering her parents in April. Brackson recounted a history of domestic violence by D.H.’s father and relayed some of her account of what happened the day her parents were killed. Brackson expressed frustration at the limited constitutional protections juveniles are given and at the way court-provided counselors work with prosecutors. “I’m speaking out for someone who doesn’t have her voice right now,” he said.
Schwab invited participants to gather around Brackson in a ritual laying on of hands to bless him and his family.
Ana Maldonado, an organizer for the Poor People’s Campaign Kansas, led participants in song before Schwab invited people to speak about their own experiences of marginalization and oppression. The group then marched back to the community center past the jail, singing the refrain from Bernice Johnson Reagon’s “Ella’s Song”: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”