Activist visits church that supported him in prison

The Rev. Edward Pinkney, a Baptist minister, is introduced by Sarah Redmond, who serves on the Faith in Action committee at the Marquette Unitarian Universalist Congregation where Pinkney spoke Sept. 17. Redmond visited Pinkney at the Marquette Branch Prison while he served 2.5 years for election fraud, for which he maintains his innocence. Pinkney is a social and political organizer in downstate Benton Harbor, and is considered by some to have been a political prisoner. (Journal photo by Mary Wardell)

MARQUETTE — People are more powerful than they know when they work together.

That was the message of the Rev. Edward Pinkney during a recent talk at the Marquette Unitarian Universalist Church.

The Baptist minister from Benton Harbor was returning to Marquette to visit the congregation that supported him while he was inside Marquette Branch Prison.

Pinkney was released in June after serving 2 and a half years in prison for what, he claims, were baseless charges.

Pinkney was found guilty in November 2014 of five felony counts of election fraud for changing dates on recall petitions.

He was attempting to recall the mayor of Benton Harbor, and he would have succeeded if not for his arrest, Pinkney said.

Benton Harbor, located west of Kalamazoo, is a 90 percent African-American community and the corporate headquarters for Whirlpool Corporation, the world’s largest manufacturer of major home appliances.

Pinkney said the recall effort was prompted by the mayor’s continued support for alleged tax evasion by Whirlpool, a Fortune 500 company with revenue of $21 billion in 2015.

“Benton Harbor was a beautiful city — beautiful — and then they started taking all the resources out of Benton Harbor,” Pinkney said. “And now it’s a mess.”

Pinkney said the population is more than halved, there are only two schools left, and enrollment numbers have plummeted.

“The school district itself, you know, it’s in shambles, and that’s what they want, they want it to be in shambles,” he said. “The court system is a pipeline, straight from high school to prison.”

Benton Harbor’s finances became the subject of scrutiny in 2009, and an emergency manager ran the city from 2010-2014.

Pinkney has been hailed by some as a political prisoner and has achieved hero status in his hometown, where he has been an activist for nearly two decades and imprisoned multiple times, he said.

In another instance, he was convicted of threatening a judge — for quoting a Bible passage in a newspaper column. His sentence was cut short when an appeals court overturned the decision.

During his time in prison, Pinkney received over 20,000 letters from around the world, he said. His growing notoriety caught the attention of the MUU church, which reached out to him.

Sarah Redmond, a member of the church’s “faith in action” committee, was the only person who successfully gained visitation rights and visited Pinkney regularly, she said.

“Most of us come from white middle class backgrounds, and we have no idea what life is like in the prisons,” Redmond said. “Bad people need to be in prison, but there are an awful lot of good people that end up there because of circumstances and poverty and racism, and we have an obligation to understand that, and to speak out when appropriate and to do what we can.”

Pinkney started his activism by “court watching” in Berrien County, where he said he witnessed many injustices.

That’s what first motivated him to start organizing. He gained enemies along the way, but he also learned that, “We don’t understand how much power we have,” he said.

“Working together is the biggest thing that you’ve got going for yourself,” Pinkney said. “We have to learn to work together, and the big thing — there’s more of us than them. And once we understand that there’s more of us than them, then we can do things. We can’t do things if we keep fighting against each other.”

Pinkney said the issues he means are “moral issues,” like prison reform, equality and social and economic justice.

“Education, it’s a moral issue, you see. War is a moral issue,” Pinkney said. “We have to learn to stand up together. … It’s not really just one thing, it’s everything.”

Pinkney said lots of people know the problems are there, but, “We don’t work together like we should.”

“We need to learn to work — black, white, red, light blue — whatever color you think you want to be, it don’t make no difference,” Pinkney said. “We’re all one.”

Pinkney said his current focus is on education.

While he does get discouraged, he said seeing his children and grandchildren gives him energy.

“I don’t want them to go through what I went through. I’m willing to take it, I’m willing to go to jail, but I want to make sure that we get something out of it,” Pinkney said. “I’m 68 years old. I don’t know how much time I’ve got left, but I want to make sure I leave a legacy here for my children to build on, and that’s why I keep going.”

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is mwardell@miningjournal.net.