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Coronavirus Victims: Alabama Poverty And Civil Rights Activist Pamela Rush

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Two years ago, Pamela Rush came to the U.S. Capitol and told her story of living in extreme poverty on behalf of the new Poor People's Campaign, which captured her statement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAMELA RUSH: My name is Pamela Rush. I'm from Lowndes County, Ala., and I live in a mobile home with my two kids.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Her story is a familiar one across the rural South, but Rush became an activist who fought for justice in impoverished areas. We're mentioning her now because she is another person who died this summer from complications of COVID-19. She was 50 years old.

KELLY: Pamela Rush had diabetes, and her daughter has breathing issues made worse by living in a mobile home wracked with mold. Raw sewage pulled in the yard. And Rush was deeply in debt because of predatory loans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RUSH: I feel bad because I don't have stuff to give my children. I'm paying all these bills. And they need school clothes and stuff. They be asking me for it. I can't give it to them.

PFEIFFER: Her distant cousin Catherine Coleman Flowers heard about the situation and went to visit Rush.

CATHERINE COLEMAN FLOWERS: She showed me how she was living. She also told me about the predatory lending that she and her family were victim of.

KELLY: In addition to being family, Coleman Flowers is the founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice.

COLEMAN FLOWERS: I asked her, would she mind sharing her story with people that I would bring there who could potentially help her, Pamela's story? And I thought then that Pamela's story was really a stark view of inequality in this nation.

PFEIFFER: Pamela Rush said yes. So Bernie Sanders came to Alabama. Jane Fonda came. They saw the cracks and holes in the mobile home. They saw the traps Rush put out to keep wild animals from invading. They learned that Rush had no car, so had no easy way to get her daughter to Birmingham to see doctors.

KELLY: Reverend William J. Barber II visited, too. He's a co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, and he appeared with her that day on Capitol Hill.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM J BARBER II: Pamela let us come in her house, courageously. She said, I want the nation maybe to help somebody else. A predatory lender made her pay $120,000 for a single-wide house that she's still paying for.

PFEIFFER: Catherine Coleman Flowers says Pamela Rush spoke with authenticity, like Fannie Lou Hamer did during the civil rights movement.

COLEMAN FLOWERS: She was kind of the Fannie Lou Hamer of this whole movement around helping people to understand poverty and understand that it's not because of personal failings; it's because of traps or systems that we put in place to make it impossible for someone to escape it.

KELLY: Pamela Rush died in Selma, Ala., of complications of COVID-19.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUSTIN O'HALLORAN'S "AN ENDING, A BEGINNING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.