On the afternoon of June 12, 2018, Pamela Rush found herself in Washington, D.C. She had traveled a long way from Tyler, a rural community of about 1,200 people in Lowndes County, to testify in front of a coalition of elected officials convened by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and late Baltimore Rep. Elijah Cummings.
Rush had come to share her story and that of 140 million more like her. As a part of the Poor People’s Campaign — a continuation of the organizing Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began in 1967 to unite the nation’s poor — Rush had traveled about 700 miles to D.C. to demand Congress do something to eradicate the crushing poverty that so many American families had come to know well.
It’s hard to imagine Rush, soft-spoken and humble in demeanor, demanding anything of anyone. But as she soon demonstrated, strength isn’t always shown through force.
In the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, a 580,000 square foot structure built on a $621 million budget, Rush sat within the halls of power; to her left was a white West Virginia teacher and a Virginia coal miner. She faced the group of probing officials, a large sculptured cross dangling on a long silver chain that hung from her neck.
“I live in a mobile home with my two kids,” Rush said, her measured speech breaking off into muffled sobs at the mention of her children.
“They charged me over $114,000,” she continued through tears, “on a mobile home that’s falling apart.”
“I’ve trapped about four possums in my house. Cats and stuff. And I got raw sewage,” Rush said. “I don’t have no money. I’m poor.”
Almost two years later to date, her moving testimony was rebroadcast to millions of people around the world at the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington; a “digital justice gathering” held on June 20 featuring activists, actors, clergy and poor people — all calling for an end to poverty.
Just a few days after the assembly, Rush found herself in a Selma hospital bed, barely able to breathe. Two weeks later, she succumbed to complications of COVID-19, leaving behind her 12-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son. She was 49 years old.
“We’re never going to forget this woman named Pamela Rush,” said Reverend William Barber II.
The renowned pastor and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign met Rush in 2018 when he visited her trailer and enlisted her support for the movement. Barber said he “counted her as a sister” and would miss her dearly.
Rush had what he called “that Fannie Lou Hamer swagger,” conjuring the outspoken civil rights era figure. She and Hamer were not so much alike in manner but similar in presentation.
On the day that Rush went to Congress, Barber said she came wearing her Sunday best.
“They dressed up to fight,” he said.
“But she came to let them know — don’t you mistake my dress.”
“’I represent those who have great dignity and great pride, but we’ve been put in a great predicament by the systems of poverty and injustice and racism in this country,’” Barber said.
The circumstances that created and exacerbated Rush’s poverty were complex and intertwined. Barber described her life as the intersection of three crises: the denial of health care, ecological devastation and impoverishment.
She had been a victim of predatory lending, paying almost 4 times the value of her mobile home in high interest fees to payday lenders. And like more than 160,000 Alabamians, Rush received disability payments, living on a fixed income of less than $1,000 a month to provide for a three-person household.
She had diabetes and was caring for a daughter who had breathing issues that required her to sleep with a CPAP machine; the trailer was sodden with black mold known to aggravate asthma symptoms. Cracks and holes in its structure amounted to costly utility bills. Rush had no means of transportation, which made it difficult to get her daughter to Birmingham for doctor’s visits.
“As a pastor I can no longer say God called them home,” Barber said, “I can say that he received them. The systems of this world are unjust.”
Rush was born and raised in Lowndes County, an area in the Black Belt region, known for its rich, fertile soil; ground that made white plantation owner’s wealthy, and the lack of which made Black descendants of the enslaved laborers who worked it very poor. In 1965, six years before Rush was born, 86 white families owned 90% of the land in Lowndes County.
Times have changed, but circumstances for many African American families have not improved significantly.
Lowndes County is 72% Black, and more than a quarter of its residents live in poverty. The average per capita income is $19,491.
The county registered the highest unemployment rate in the state in May at 26% and has quickly become a coronavirus hot spot boasting Alabama’s highest rate of COVID-19 cases. According to Bloomberg News, Lowndes County’s infection rate now “rivals the most infected ZIP code in New York City at its pandemic peak.”
Gov. Kay Ivey and the state’s leadership have continually refused federal funding to expand Medicaid. And 10 of the state’s rural hospitals have closed in a decade. Though, there has never been a hospital in Lowndes County to shutter.
“The inequality that exists in this state makes COVID like a heat-seeking missile that seeks out these disparities. … And it’s made places like Lowndes County very vulnerable,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.
“The state of Alabama could’ve done more to help Pam and people like her.”
It was Coleman Flowers who connected Rush with Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign. She and Rush are cousins on her father’s side, but the women grew close about two years ago when one of Rush’s sisters reached out asking if she could help Rush find “a decent place to live.”
Coleman Flowers met with Rush at her mobile home. Upon learning more about her situation, she said all she could do was cry.
“It hurt me that she was living like that,” Coleman Flowers said. “I committed to doing whatever I could do to help her.”
One of the most pressing issues facing the County’s poorest residents is sewage. The dense clay-like consistency of the soil prevents it from absorbing much water, and standard septic systems don’t work; often flooding raw sewage into people’s yards or backing up sinks and toilets.
The specialized systems needed cost upwards of $10,000 — more than half the average resident’s yearly income. With little to no help from the County or state to cover the exorbitant cost, many poor residents use the “straight-pipe” method, funneling raw sewage through plastic pipes discharged on the ground nearby. The strategy has caused a growth in tropical diseases, most notably hookworm.
Rush spoke to Southerly Magazine in 2018 about the issue, describing how her children could not play in certain areas outside because of the health risks. She said she had once felt ashamed of her family’s poverty.
“I had to come out of my shame,” Rush said.
In doing so, she unwittingly became an activist.
In 2019, Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders would also travel to Alabama to meet with Rush; he had been a part of the Washington forum on poverty that Rush had testified at the year prior.
Upon hearing of her passing, Sanders wrote:
“She detailed her struggle with clarity, candor and strength … in the hopes of building a better world for her children, her loved ones and those she didn’t know. She was a mother, an activist and an unyielding spirit. … As I promised that day, I will make sure her story is never forgotten.”
Since 2018, Rush had been featured in number of publications; NPR, the Economist and most recently Time Magazine. Celebrities such as Jane Fonda and philanthropists like Kat Taylor, wife of former presidential candidate Tom Steyer, traveled to Tyler to meet with her.
“She opened her life to other people so they could take a peek at poverty and see what it was like,” said Coleman Flowers, Rush’s cousin.
“I just want people to know that she left a legacy. The power of her story and lifting her voice is going to be greater than folks realize.”
Rush’s homegoing service was held on Saturday at New Mount Lily Missionary Baptist Church in Rudolph.