From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Presbyterian Minister Jailed Following

Date 04 May 1996 20:57:53


96026         Presbyterian Minister Jailed Following 
               Protests at Kmart Distribution Center 
                         by Julian Shipp 
GREENSBORO, N.C.--On Jan. 15, the Rev. James Herbert Nelson II, pastor of 
St. James Presbyterian Church here, reflected upon the life and legacy of 
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from a paradoxical perspective -- a jail cell. 
     Nelson has twice been arrested and jailed, along with several other 
ministers associated with the Greensboro Pulpit Forum, following nonviolent 
labor protests Dec. 10 and Jan. 15 at the Kmart Distribution Center. 
     The demonstrations are the latest efforts in a mounting union fight by 
local Kmart shipping workers, who claim to be paid significantly less than 
their Kmart counterparts in other parts of the country. Those arrested said 
they sympathize with union complaints that distribution center employees in 
Greensboro earn an average of $4.60 per hour less than employees at the 12 
other Kmart distribution centers across the nation. 
     According to the Pulpit Forum, a nonprofit ecumenical organization, 
Greensboro also has the only Kmart distribution center where the majority 
of workers are minorities and where workers receive fewer benefits than 
workers at any of the other centers. 
     Nelson said he and other Pulpit Forum ministers have vowed to keep 
going to jail for the workers until their efforts attract national 
attention and achieve positive outcomes. He told the Presbyterian News 
Service that the main goal of the protests is to heighten community 
awareness of "the real issues at hand. 
     "Kmart symbolizes the crushing effect of big companies on the lives of 
workers," Nelson said.  "When people can't make enough money to make ends 
meet, what often follows is crime, drug use, and the breakdown of the 
family and community. What we are concerned with is life and the peace and 
harmony of this city." 
     After hearing complaints from workers, many of whom are members of 
local churches, Nelson said theological reasons compelled him to act. 
     "The struggle of this theologically is, What is our calling to support 
the poor?" Nelson said.  "And if in fact we are called to support the poor, 
we then are called to deal with the powers and principalities that actually 
foster the poverty of all these folks who have to come to the doors [of the 
church] asking for food, shelter and clothing. 
      "What would [Jesus] do when somebody says they are struggling to feed 
their family and they're honorable people in the sense that they work every 
day?" Nelson said.  "These workers are trying to earn a decent living. They 
want the same things for their family that we want and all the other people 
who are being paid some money want." 
     Along with Nelson, police charged other ministers with trespassing in 
the demonstrations, the first of  which was led by the Rev. William F. 
Wright, president of the Greensboro Pulpit Forum, which has been working 
with the Kmart workers and their union for nearly two years. 
     Arrested were the Rev. Michael Frencher, pastor of Trinity A.M.E. 
Church; the Rev. Nelson Johnson, pastor of Faith Community Church; the Rev. 
Gregory Headen, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church; the Rev. Anthony Spearman, 
associate pastor of Trinity A.M.E. Church; the Rev. Jerry Taylor, pastor of 
English Street Church of Christ; the Rev. Cardes H. Brown, pastor of New 
Light Missionary Baptist Church; and the Rev. Joe Willis, president of the 
Greensboro Poor People's Organization. 
     Also arrested during the Dec. 10 demonstration were state Rep. Alma 
Adams, a Greensboro legislator and Bennet College professor, and Carolyn 
Coleman, a special assistant to North Carolina governor Jim Hunt and an 
NAACP national board member.  
     Adams, whose district includes the distribution center, was among 
those who signed a written promise to appear in court Feb. 5 and were 
promptly released. But according to the Greensboro magistrate's office, six 
of those arrested, including Nelson and Wright, refused that option and 
chose to remain in jail. They later posted bond for the misdemeanor 
trespassing charge and were released. 
     Nelson was charged with the same offense Jan. 15 and said he is also 
scheduled to appear in court Feb. 1. Ironically, Feb. 1, 1960,  marked the 
date four North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College students 
ignited a nationwide struggle for justice by staging the first sit-in at a 
lunch counter at Woolworth's department store in Greensboro. Their efforts 
greatly influenced the civil rights movement. 
     "We hope to arouse the conscience of this community and perhaps the 
nation," Wright said.  "We're living in a dangerous delusion if we think 
the rich can keep on getting richer and the poor be driven down to the 
bottom without any kind of reaction. Sooner of later, something is going to 
erupt when there is this much anger, bitterness and hopelessness." 
     What was described as a "carefully planned display of civil 
disobedience" witnessed by approximately 200 onlookers, several dozen law 
enforcement officials and nearly 40 demonstrators took place at about 2:30 
p.m. Jan. 15 in front of the distribution center. 
     In accordance with King's philosophy of peaceful, nonviolent 
demonstration, the ministers knelt in prayer on the asphalt in front of the 
building. After a Kmart store manager asked the group to leave, police 
waited quietly for several minutes, then handcuffed the protesters and led 
them into police and sheriff's vehicles. Those arrested offered no 
     Initial negotiations last year between Kmart Corp. and labor union 
representatives failed, but a Kmart Corp. spokesperson in Troy, Mich., said 
the company entered new negotiations Jan. 11. The outcome of these 
discussions is unknown at this time. 
     In the meantime, the Pulpit Forum has contacted national religious and 
civil rights leaders and informed them of the situation in Greensboro. 
Those contacted include  the Rev. Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow Coalition; 
the Rev. Benjamin Chavis, national chair of the Million Man March; U.S. 
Rep. Mel Wyatt; and Kwesi Mfume, the newly elected NAACP executive 
     Also contacted are the presidents of the four predominantly 
African-American Baptist associations, the leadership of the African 
Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, African Methodist Episcopal Church and the 
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) 
     Nelson said future Pulpit Forum strategies include continuing to urge 
people not to shop at Kmart, weekly church gatherings at the Kmart 
distribution center, and arranging meetings with the mayor, business 
leaders, and media representatives. The Forum also plans a tour around the 
state to meet with other clergy to discuss the situation in Greensboro. 
     Nelson said he believes the Kmart dispute and the issues surrounding 
it could not have surfaced at a better time than King's birthday, a time 
when the nation honors the slain civil rights leader through ceremonies, 
marches and other observances, and reflects upon issues such as equality 
and justice that King devoted his life and ministry to. 
     "Actually I think what we are doing here represents picking up where 
King left off," Nelson said.  "And I think this could not have come at a 
better time. We needed to do what King did on his last birthday in 1968 -- 
organize a poor people's campaign. We can't sit by, abide, have church and 
say Dr.  King's dream still lives. We've got to allow it to happen through 
the lives we live."  
Information for this report was also compiled by the Greensboro News and 

For more information contact Presbyterian News Service
  Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Louisville, KY 40202
  phone 502-569-5504            fax 502-569-8073  
  E-mail   Web page: 


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