LISTEN HERE (Support this project at patreon.com/AfricanElements)
It’s almost hard to fathom that first-term congresswoman Cori Bush of Missouri’s 1st district has only been on the job for one year. With an urgent insistence on speaking up for the country’s marginalized, she’s seemingly sparked more headlines than she’s had days in office.
Back in August, with the expiration of a federal eviction moratorium hanging in balance, most legislators started heading home for the break. Not Bush. The 45-year-old ordained pastor and registered nurse, who emerged as a powerful activist voice during the 2014 Ferguson protests, felt an unshakeable “energy” stirring inside her, compelling her to stay and fight. She spontaneously launched a five-day sit-in on the steps of the Capitol—camping out in an orange sleeping bag to protest, sharing her own story of being unhoused, and inspiring colleagues to join her. Her efforts worked: The Biden administration extended the moratorium.
Just a month later, Bush sensed that energy yet again. On September 1st, the Supreme Court refused to block Texas Senate Bill 8, which effectively made abortion illegal in the state. Bush knew she had to say something. A copycat law was emerging in her home state and others. After the Texas abortion bill took effect, Bush bravely testified before a House panel about her own abortion as a teenager. “In the summer of 1994, I was raped,” she told the panel. “I became pregnant, and I chose to have an abortion. To all the Black women and girls who have had abortions and will have abortions, we have nothing to be ashamed of. We are worthy of better. That’s why I’m here to tell my story.” In running for office, Bush once asked herself who spoke up for people like her. The answer is now clear: She does.
We talked to Bush in October about what inspired her to share the deeply personal story of her own abortion and the expiration of the eviction moratorium, as well as how community activists convinced her to run for office, what she learned on the campaign trail, and her unfinished business.
Your late friend Muhiyidin d’Baha—a prominent Ferguson activist—urged you to run for office. Why did you resist for so long?
I watched my dad in politics for so many years—a man who only wanted to show people a difference in their lives. But he would also take a lot of criticism—all of these darts. It just seemed like a lot of people that were around him in politics did not have the same heart. That’s what I witnessed growing up. I supported him on every single campaign. Later on, I felt my role was other types of public service: ministry and nursing. But I said at 18 years old that I would never go into politics.
It wasn’t until after Michael Brown was killed, all of the protests over those 400 days, and Muhiyidin asked me to run, that it even crossed my mind. I said no.
But you know, he reached out to local community leaders and when they asked me, I knew even though I told them, no, I just felt like there was something on the inside of me that was just saying yes. It was actually the same feeling I felt when I made the decision to stay on the steps of the U.S. Capitol [to protest the end of the eviction moratorium]. I had no clue what was going to come out of it. But it was like, Do this.
I didn’t realize he was so persistent. He almost went around and conspired against you too.
Oh, he did. He didn’t just go to [any] people; he went to the community leaders who were the elders. [Laughing] So, you know, I have the elder activists of the community calling me on the phone saying, we want you to run.
After your initial reluctance, you dove head first into politics. In 2016, you lost your first campaign for the U.S. Senate by 56 points, then you endured an assault, and then you launched your next campaign for Missouri’s first congressional district just four months later. That seems intense. Campaigns are incredibly grueling. Why not take a breather?
It was very intense. Not only was I working a full-time job, I was running a community mental health clinic that had several sites. I was taking care of my kids. When I didn’t win, it was a hard, hard blow. But I realized that just through running all over the state, I was able to make connections, hear people’s stories, and for them to hear my story.
One particular day, I had to go speak in a small town in Missouri. A message was sent to my team, tell her, don’t come. They even put it in the newspaper that I was coming there to burn down the building. I’m like, okay, you say I can’t come? That’s the place we need to go. So we went and there was a police blockade entering the town. So we got out and we walked to the place where I was supposed to give the speech. The only people of color in this packed auditorium room were the people that came with me. I gave the speech in front of this crowd that was very unwelcoming. But by the end of my speech, I had a standing ovation.
This elder white woman walked up to me and she starts to rub the back of my hand. She said I just wanted to see if it rubbed off. I knew at that moment, that it was just ignorance, and not being exposed to one another. And she said, well, Cori, you have to understand, we don’t have Black people here. Since then, they invited me back. I even went into the school system. It opened the door.
When I did lose the race three weeks later, then the sexual assault happened, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t cook, I couldn’t wash clothes. It was a very difficult four months. When some folks came to me and asked me to run for the seat, I said, I don’t want to do this, you know. I’m doing therapy. I just came back to work.
But when I thought about what happened in my sexual assault case, when I thought about how I went to court four times and never even got an order of protection, let alone the guy being brought to justice, where I didn’t have any help, I realized who speaks up for victims. And I thought about my son and my daughter being the next hashtag. [I said to myself] Cori, you’re going through that right now, but you’re in therapy, so while you’re healing, you can be working to help somebody else.
This content was originally published here.