House

Bobby Rush’s retirement is a chance to return to ‘first love’: social justice

Moriah Ratner

For nearly three decades, Rep. Bobby Rush (D) has represented the people of Illinois’ first congressional district, speaking up for the overlooked communities of Chicago’s South Side and giving voice to America’s most vulnerable.

Now, after 29 years, Rush is leaving Washington. But in an interview with The Hill, Rush says he’s not really retiring. 

“I’m returning home to my church and to my community, and I’m returning to my first love which is basically social justice and community organizing,” said the 75-year-old pastor. 

Rush’s “first love” of social justice dates back to the 1960s and his time as a Black Panther. 

Born in segregated Albany, Georgia, on Nov. 23, 1946, Rush’s family moved to Chicago in 1953. At 17, Rush enlisted in the U.S. Army where he served until 1968.

That year, the Black Panther Party of Chicago was born. Rush co-founded the chapter with Fred Hampton and served as defense minister, coordinating projects to boost support for the group throughout the Black community. 

“In a nation that had long devalued Black people and rejected Black power, the Panthers preached Black pride and self-determination, defense against police brutality, and economic security for Black America,” Rush wrote in an op-ed last year.

“For that, we were deemed by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to be the ‘greatest threat’ to America’s internal security,” Rush continued, noting he was among the members “subjected to a relentless campaign of surveillance and political repression.”

The FBI’s domestic counterintelligence operation, called COINTELPRO, would lead to a predawn attack on the Chicago Panthers. On Dec. 4, 1969, Hampton, along with fellow Panther Mark Clark, was murdered when Chicago law enforcement burst into their West Side apartment and opened fire. 

Rush was meant to be in the apartment at the time, he told Esquire in June. After Hampton’s assassination, Rush became the acting chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party.

In 2021, Rush introduced the COINTELPRO Full Disclosure Act, legislation that would force the government to reveal decades-old FBI files about domestic spying on civil rights activists. 

“In the past year and a half, our nation has finally started to recognize and reckon with longstanding abuses in policing and surveillance that have been perpetrated against Black communities for decades,” Rush said. “Contrary to J. Edgar Hoover’s assertion, the Black Panther Party did not pose a real threat to America’s national security — only to the status quo of white supremacy.”

Still, it was Rush’s work with the Black Panthers that eventually set him down the path to run for Congress. 

In the early 1970s, a friend of Rush’s apprentice Rep. Ralph Metcalfe (D-Ill.) was stopped for not having a light over his license plate. The two white policemen who stopped allegedly “roughed him up.” When the friend, Herbert Odom, complained about the treatment, he was arrested.

“I’ll never forget at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church when Congressman Metcalfe called a rally on a Sunday afternoon to talk about what the police had done,” Rush said. “I went to the rally, sat in the back, and I was astounded. The whole church was full, standing room only.”

This was a congregation of thousands, Rush added. The Panthers, he said, considered an event successful if 200 people show up. It was an epiphany for Rush.

“The megaphone of a respected elected official can speak to a lot more people than just a community organizer’s,” he said. 

So, in 1975, Rush ran for alderman of Chicago’s 2nd Ward. He lost, but ran again and won in 1983. He served as alderman until 1992, when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Throughout his 15 terms, Rush focused on fighting for and amplifying the needs of the Black community. 

He sponsored the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act, which created a board to review and declassify files from Civil Rights–era cold cases.  

After the murder of Trayvon Martin in March 2012, Rush was removed from the House floor for wearing a hoodie while speaking, defying the House’s dress code. He pulled the hood over his head, the same way Martin had done before he was shot, to emphasize that hoodies do not inherently make Black men threats.

In 2021, Rush called for a multi-agency special task force dedicated to finding missing Black and Brown women and girls across the country. 

He also reintroduced the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which defined lynching as “a conspiracy to commit a hate crime that results in death or serious bodily injury.” The act also made lynching a federal crime. President Biden signed the act into law in March.

Rush has remained popular with his district, consistently winning by large margins, and even defeating then-state Sen. Barack Obama in the 2000 Democratic primary. Rush is the only politician to ever beat Obama. Obama would later say he had “my rear end handed to me.”

Rush told The Hill he’ll miss his colleagues, Capitol staff and the employees he’s had over the years. But he keeps his former member of Congress ID card in his wallet, which means he’ll have access to the building for life, and promises to come back and visit. 

He added the diversity in the incoming representatives and leadership is shocking, especially as they understand it is his shoulders they stand on.

“I’m honored and humbled that they would include me in being part of their inspiration just as I had some people from the past who were my inspiration as a young person trying to find their way,” Rush said. 

Still, Rush said it’s time to leave, while he can still spend time with his family and congregation. 

“I want to spend time with my grandchildren,” he said. “I want them to know me, what I sound like, and I want them to know something about my heart so that they can be inspired or at least knowledgeable about who I am; to laugh with me and joke with me and crack jokes about me. I want them to be able to call me and spend time with me.”

As of now, Rush said, he spends four days a week in Washington. Not only does it keep him from his grandchildren, but it also keeps him from his congregation at the Beloved Community Christian Church of God in Christ, who he says deserves a full-time pastor. 

By getting back to community organizing, Rush added, he’ll also have the chance to continue inspiring younger generations with stories of the Civil Rights Movement and his time in politics, especially as political and cultural polarization increases.

While the 1960s were “the apex of cultural change,” Rush said, lately it feels as if history is repeating itself. 

“Right now, I think we’re at a more critical juncture than we were at in the 60s,” Rush said. “In the 60s, we were trying to change our nation for the better. We are now at a point where strong forces are trying to change our nation to a more limited, ego-driven, maniacal future.”

“They want to return to the dark days of this nation where white men were the apex of power, without any recognition or appreciation for others in society who are contributing at the same time, and maybe contributing more,” he continued. 

“I am convinced, now more than ever, that in order to really change the fabric of our nation, we have to get into the homes, communities and enter the individual minds and hearts of American citizens,” said Rush. “More than political change there has got to be a cultural change.”

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