I’ve spent night and day for the past few weeks obsessing over the case of Heather Ellis, a 24-year-old college student now facing 15 years in prison after allegedly cutting in line at a Wal-Mart store. The case got my attention because I found it unfathomable that a pastor’s daughter with no criminal record on her way to medical school could ever find herself fighting for her freedom over a minor altercation.
In this case, I am no longer the professor. Instead I’ve become the student. In addition to teaching me about courage, Heather’s case has also taught me about politics, corruption and self-interest. In the lead up to our rally today in Kennett, Missouri, I’ve heard shocking stories about legal dealings behind the scenes and have been reminded of just how imbalanced our justice system can be for minorities and the poor.
A former prosecutor in the area has come to me with evidence of possible judicial corruption. I am finding that my friends may actually be my enemies and that the tangled web of political connections can lead to prosecutors and defense attorneys being on the same team.
I remain surprised that the NAACP has not pushed to support Heather on a national level. Given that Heather’s father, Pastor Nathaniel Ellis, is a member of the Church of God in Christ, it would seem that they would be fighting for his daughter before strangers would. But the reality is that the struggle for civil rights does not need to go through the usual suspects and it doesn’t always have to go through the church. The fight for justice in America should go through all of us, since the greatest black leader in the history of the world is the one you see in the mirror.
When my assistant’s children, Justice and Journi, brought Heather’s case to me, I wasn’t sure what I could do for her. I talked with Rev. Al Sharpton, and also to my father, who is a pastor and a police officer. I wanted to know the ins and outs of county politics and try to get a sense of how I could best help Heather’s family. I no longer wanted to be a PhD; instead, I wanted to be a “Ph-Do.” When I read about Heather’s background, I could see my own sister, another black pastor’s daughter on her way to medical school. It was from this connection that I was able to touch – psychologically-speaking – the family’s nightmare to see it from my own eyes. Again, their struggle made me into a student.
We are honored that so many are planning to join us in Missouri. It is our goal to head to Kennett, fight for fairness and do the right thing. We have no doubt that justice will prevail, Heather will be set free, and we can all learn valuable lessons in the process.