By Sheila Banks

U.S. Representative-elect Cori Bush, for Missouri's 1st congressional district.

On Aug. 3, 2020, 44-year old Black Lives Matter activist and community leader Cori Bush did the impossible. She defeated longtime incumbent U.S. Rep William Lacy Clay Jr. in Missouri’s Democratic primary, ending 52 years of the Clay family political dynasty in the state’s 1st Congressional District. The presumed underdog, Bush was like the young Biblical figure David who victoriously toppled the giant Philistine warrior Goliath in the famous Bible story. The stunning primary win was a major accomplishment for Bush, who once was homeless and living in her car, and it virtually guarantees her a seat in Congress. She is the first Black woman to win a seat in Missouri’s 1st District.

Bush’s primary upset ousted the Clay family dynasty that began when William Lacy (Bill) Clay, Sr., then a St. Louis City alderman, won the 1st District congressional seat in 1968. Clay Sr. later became a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. In 2000, his son, Clay, Jr., then a Missouri state legislator, took his father’s place in Congress when Clay Sr. retired after 32 years. The 1st Congressional District, which includes the city of St. Louis and much of north St. Louis County, is historically the most Democratic district in the red state of Missouri.

Bush speaks to supporters.

It’s the morning of September 2nd, just days after Cori Bush participated in the “Get Your Knee Off Our Neck” 2020 March on Washington in the nation’s capital sponsored by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network and Martin Luther King III. The march’s rallying cry was a reference to the way George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, was killed by a white police officer months earlier in Minneapolis. The march occurred on the 57th anniversary of the first March on Washington in 1963 where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous I Have a Dream speech.

“I’m still in shock,” Bush said during a ZOOM interview after her primary win. “Everyday I wake up and it’s still true. I mean - I believed it could and would happen. But for this to actually come into fruition is still beyond my wildest dreams.”

Photo of Bush shocked of her win over incumbent Rep. William Lacy Clay.

Representing her district in Congress is both an unexpected dream for Bush and one that she has unknowingly been groomed for her entire life. She is a lifelong resident of her district. Bush credited her father, Errol, for her improbable victory, calling him “the wind beneath my wings.” She described her family as a typical, hard-working, lower middle-class family that included both parents, her brother, Perry, and her sister, Kelli. Bush’s father was a union meat cutter for 20 years. Her mom, Barbara, was a computer analyst.

“I guess we were always activists, very Afrocentric,” said Bush. “Ours was not the household where my sister and I played with Barbies.”

Bush recalled an incident during her childhood in which she begged her parents for a Strawberry Shortcake cartoon poster to put on her bedroom wall, but her father refused. Instead, she said, her bedroom space was adorned with the great queens and kings of Africa. Their home was also filled with pictures of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. When the family watched television, it was documentaries such as Eyes on the Prize, a multipart series on the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

“It was to the point where I had memorized all the episodes,” Bush recalled.

Growing up, Bush said her parents instilled in her and her siblings the knowledge of their African roots and took them to Kwanzaa celebrations honoring African heritage.

“My parents wanted us to know where we came from – greatness, not slavery.” She was taught that “dark skin is amazing and to never let anyone tell me otherwise.” Bush said she didn’t understand at the time, but she remembers that every morning before school her father would sit her and her brother down and drill into them these words: “You are a leader, not a follower.” “Be accountable.” “Responsibility, responsibility, responsibility.”

Cori Bush’s exposure to political life began as a young child when her father became an elected official. She was 8 years old when he first ran for alderman of Northwoods township, a position he held from 1987 to 1995. That same year, her father was elected mayor and served until 2003. Now Errol Bush is serving as an Alderman again.

“Ours weren’t the typical daddy/daughter dates,” said Cori Bush. “Ours were daddy/daughter campaign events or banquets. I remember being on stage with him, speaking as a young child.”

The Bushes also wanted their children to have the best education. That meant the children would attend the local parochial school conducted by a religious group rather than the public schools, even though the family was Baptist. (St. Louis is historically systemically segregated in education, housing and health care.) After high school, Cori Bush’s dream was to attend Tuskegee University, where she would study nursing and pledge Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a historically African American Greek organization for college-educated women.

Young Cori Bush received a scholarship to one of the area’s private girls’ schools located in the “good” ZIP code of North County. She took the entrance exam for the school, along with 300 other girls, and achieved the highest score. However, school administrators wrongly accused Bush of cheating, declaring that a Black child never could have scored that high. They insisted that she take the entrance exam again, in the auditorium, and this time alone. The second time, Bush scored even higher on the exam.

From the very first day at that prestigious girls’ school, which Bush prefers not to name, she was harassed and mistreated by students, teachers and administrators. “They beat me down,” she said. “I would turn in an ‘A’ paper and have it returned with a ‘C.’ Or, if I turned in an assignment, some teacher would swear I never turned it in at all.”

Bush said she actually watched teachers ball up her papers and pitch them into the trash. But she said the worst incident was watching a teacher spray canned whipped cream on one of her papers. After that, she said she fell into a deep depression. Her grades dropped, and her self-esteem was crushed.

After that first hellish semester, Bush’s parents transferred her to Cardinal Ritter College Prep, co-educational, predominantly Black Catholic high school located in St. Louis. But, it was too late. The damage was done.

“I couldn’t pull it together after that,” Bush recalled. “In my mind, being smart equaled getting hurt.” She graduated from Cardinal Ritter with a disappointing 2.7 GPA. The college scholarships, Tuskegee, and her sorority dreams were squashed.

Bush then took menial jobs to pay for a few hours at the local HBCU, Harris-Stowe State University, and at the University of Missouri, St. Louis (UMSL). It was at Harris-Stowe where Bush says she fell into some “very dark situations” and “was living an ugly life.” She married a guy against her parents’ wishes and had two children.

At that point, she couldn’t afford school anymore. She took a low-paying job at a preschool for the next 10 years to make ends meet. She said her husband became increasingly abusive toward her, almost killing her twice. The second time, she said, he choked her until she passed out on the floor, leaving her for dead. It was then that she decided to leave him and live in her car with her young children.

“My choices were either to stay with him or live with my babies in my car. I chose the car,” said Bush. ”My parents would have taken us in, but I was ashamed. I had a husband, after all.”

In the midst of that dark period in her life, Bush said she found God. Although she attended church as a child, she said she never really got into church. But that wasn’t the case now. “Spiritual mothers were being sent my way,” said Bush. “I started to regain my strength and will. The God-sent women helped me get out of that marriage.”

Finally, after many hardships – including having her utilities turned off, countless evictions, and living with her possessions in trash bags — Bush and her children moved in with her father, who was now divorced from her mother.

Eventually, Bush went to nursing school and earned a nursing degree. She began to share her story with others and later became an ordained minister. According to Bush, “It was my faith that ordered every step I took from then on.”

Bush began to use her nursing and ministry skills in public clinics and on the streets. She discovered that many of her patients were victims of human trafficking and weren’t even aware that they were being held hostage. She teamed up with case workers to get people out of danger and into safe housing. She helped people with a variety of needs including mental health services and housing needs.

When Michael Brown, an 18-year-old unarmed Black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Bush became an acitivst, blending her work as a community organizer with protests over Brown’s death.

“I was both a pastor and a medic,” she said. Since then, Bush has led or participated in many protests over police brutality against Black people. However, she recalled an incident in which she almost lost her own daughter, Angel, now 19, during one protest. According to Bush, a bullet fired through the trunk of her car went through the backseat and lodged in the front passenger side, where her daughter was sitting. Had it continued, she said, the bullet, would have landed in child’s spine.

Bush said she wanted better for her children (son, Zion is now a 20-year old college student) and her community. She is a progressive who supported two-time Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). She noticed that Sanders’ belief seemed to align with hers when she heard him speak as a 2016 presidential candidate, speak and whose beliefs seemed to be in alignment with hers. Remembering the speech, Bush chuckled, “When I heard this old white man say, ‘Black Lives Matter’ on a stage publicly, I was Bernie Sanders all the way.”

Against many naysayers, Bush first ran against veteran congressman William Lacy Clay Jr. in 2018, losing by 20 points. Her effort was chronicled in the 2019 NETFLIX documentary, Knock Down the House, which followed the Congressional races of four determined yet ordinary women, including Bush and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Ocasio-Cortez was the only victor that year. That documentary got the attention of the Sanders presidential campaign in early 2020. Bush endorsed Sanders this year, and Sanders endorsed her. “That’s when all the doors of fund raising and visibility opened,” Bush said.

Then the Covid-19 coronavirus physically debilitated Bush, causing her to be hospitalized for two weeks. Following her release, Bush endured a lengthy recovery at home from the end of March until Memorial Day in May when the world watched the horrific videotaped murder of George Floyd on TV. Protests, both peaceful and sometimes violent, triggered by Floyd’s death and other racial injustices helped propel Bush to victory.

Bush is walking into Congress with eyes wide open. She knows she’s up for a fight with her platform of equity across the board, Medicare for all, immediate financial Covid relief, reallocating police funds, and a national $15-per-hour minimum wage. But she added, “After everything I’ve been through, I’m not afraid to fight.”

The Crisis magazine is a quarterly journal of politics, culture, civil rights and history that seeks to educate and challenge its readers about issues facing African-Americans and other communities of color.

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