From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Presbyterian Minister Jailed Following
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 PCUSA.NEWS@pcusa.org Web page: http://www.pcusa.org
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