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After 30 years in the U.S. House, Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush is leaving

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Bobby Rush is leaving Congress. The longtime representative from South Side Chicago is ending a chapter in a life that's seen military service, the fight for civil rights for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Illinois Black Panther Party, and also elected office as city alderman and congressman. The only person to defeat Barack Obama at the ballot box during a primary in 2000 says he's not retiring but returning.

BOBBY RUSH: My best self is in my expression of service to others. My love language is service. That's who I am.

MARTINEZ: I spoke with Bobby Rush yesterday and asked him about a talk he had with his 19-year-old grandson that had him rethinking his work on Capitol Hill.

RUSH: To have your grandson saying that, you know, you're not accessible to him because you're really doing important work, but there's no more work that's more important than having the right relationship with your grandchildren and with this younger generation. I don't want my grandchildren to know me from a history book, from a media outlet. I want them to know me personally, the sound of my voice, my inflections of my voice. You know, I just have some - a lot of shared experiences. So they can pass it on to their children and their grandchildren.

MARTINEZ: Now, you were very clear, though, in saying that this is not a retirement. You mention your church, Beloved Community Church of God in Christ in Chicago, the South Side of Chicago. When it comes to remaining on the front lines of your community, what's that going to look like for you?

RUSH: You know, I am - I'm looking forward to - and frankly, I'm excited about going into the gangways and the hallways and on the streets. You know, where young people hang out and where they live, I'm going to go in there and try to inspire them and show them the way to take advantage of some of the opportunities that exist in our nation.

MARTINEZ: Back in 1968, Congressman, you co-founded the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. And back then, you know, many Americans saw your group as terrorists. Now, today we have more sympathetic portraits, such as the movie "Judas And The Black Messiah." Congressman, do you think that there is a greater sense of understanding, perhaps even a validation now for what you were trying to do back then?

RUSH: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. We engaged in what we called survival programs. And those programs included the Free Breakfast for Children program, free medical clinics around the nation. Obamacare is one variation of the free health clinics. We have qualified health clinics now who, under Obamacare, are getting billions of dollars to provide health care and health centers located in the same neighborhoods that the Panther Party was trying to organize. School lunch programs now - they are necessary items right now at schools all across the nation, not just in Black communities but poor communities all across this nation. We've got a long way to go, and we have a short time to get there. So on January 6 today, on the anniversary of the attack on our deomcracy, I can only say that we still have a long way to go in a very short time to get there. And as a matter of fact, if we don't get it done in the next two years, then I think that we are going to really be in a very difficult, difficult place.

MARTINEZ: Congressman, what did you think of what the president and vice president said at the Capitol to mark the anniversary of the insurrection there? What stood out to you the most?

RUSH: The vice president and certainly the president gave every freedom-loving, justice-seeking, democracy-believing American citizen some real - a real clear, precise, potent picture of where we have to go as a nation. He did not try to dilute it. He didn't try to paint a wonderful picture. He gave us the real deal. He gave us the truth. And I am one who believes if you know the truth, then the truth ought to set you free.

MARTINEZ: When it comes to protecting that democracy, Congressman, what do you think Congress should do? What can be done? What's the No. 1 thing? What would be top on your wish list to be done?

RUSH: I think the voting rights bill, the John Lewis Voting Rights Act - immediately, that should be passed. That is the one thing that the U.S. government can do to protect the right to vote for all American citizens in every state of the Union. We have got to pass that bill. That would mean almost as important to our democracy as the Emancipation Proclamation.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, both stressed the importance of the Voting Rights Act, and both also alluded to the importance of the midterms that are coming up. Congressman, do you think that January 6, as the president said, could possibly mark a renaissance for democracy?

RUSH: Well, I believe that he voiced it. It should be a turning point. But again, there's a lot of work to be done. We have got to change the hearts of so many people. And that takes more than a 15- or 20-minute speech on television. I don't think that the president - he did not wave a magic wand. He called us to action. I intend to be on the front line in the thick of this pursuit, of this effort to protect our democratic form of government, protect our democracy.

MARTINEZ: Bobby Rush has represented the 1st Congressional District in Illinois for nearly 30 years. Congressman, thank you very much for joining us.

RUSH: Thank you so very much. I really enjoyed being with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL LAURANCE'S "BALM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.