Rev. Dr. William Barber II draws a lot of comparisons to another Southern preacher. He’s been heralded by people like Dr. Cornell West as today’s answer to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The North Carolina-based pastor today is fighting for many of the same issues King marched for 50 years ago.
On this week’s episode of the Reckon Interview we talk with Rev. Barber about how he and others have picked up the mantle of civil rights leadership and are launching a new Poor People’s Campaign. We recorded this interview in Selma during the anniversary of the Bloody Sunday march from Selma to Montgomery. And in a sign of the times, we recorded our conversation in an empty classroom at a community college named for one of King’s chief adversaries, George Wallace.
We go into what’s changed in the five decades since King was assassinated. Whether white and black Christians in the South are worshiping the same God. The fight for voting rights. And how he succeeded in creating a multiracial coalition that has won battles with both political parties in North Carolina.
Here’s an excerpt from the episode to get you started.
Rev. Dr. William Barber II on the story of the South
We’re told these stories when it comes to the civil rights movement. We’re told sometimes it was just “white folk against Dr. King.” Well the reality is, the movement for abolition of slavery was black and white together. The Reconstruction movement that said we’re going to rebuild in the South and we’re going to change, was white and black together. Rewriting constitutions, declaring that public education for all ought to be a state right, equal protection under the law ought to be not only a federal thing, but ought to be in our state constitution. Black and white together.
The civil rights movement was black and white, and Jewish and others together. The Selma to Montgomery march, black and white together. That’s why Dr. King told the truth. One of the greatest speeches is, I think, the speech he did on the steps of the Alabama State House at the end of the march from Selma to Montgomery, where he tells the story [of the South].
And he says, every time there’s been the possibility of black and white people in the South to build a mighty coalition, to build a society for the brotherhood of man, for the beloved community, I’m paraphrasing.
He says, an aristocracy sews division, feeds the white man Jim Crow for his empty stomachs, to divide him from the poor black man, when in fact, the poor black man, the poor white man, if you look at history — the Reconstruction time — was the moral coalition, the fusion coalition. And we need to tell that whole story, we need to tell the story about the whites and the blacks that worked together long before Selma became the national center of attention.
We need to tell the story about the Jewish synagogue right down on the main street that was a part of the civil rights movement right here in Selma. We need to tell the story, that black and white, male and female and gay and straight, have always come together and imagined a way forward.
And we need to understand that we are in a place right now in America, for the — I believe in one of the first times in history, we can solve these problems. We, we could solve voter suppression. We got the technology. And we could have expanding voting rights. We have the money, there’s not a scarcity of resources, we can find money for war, we can find money. There’s not a scarcity of resources to have strong public schools for everybody. We can provide health care for everybody.
We don’t have to keep pitting people against… these Southern states shouldn’t be… these legislators suggest that if you expand health care it’s going to somehow go to these lazy people that are not working, i.e. black and brown people, and lying to the people when primarily most of the people it will help are white. That’s why the Poor People’s Campaign we’re right now putting together a budget, some of the best economists, activists, sociologists, historians, because we’re going to take on the lie of scarcity.
We’re going to take on the lie that poverty is the creation of poor people’s problems, rather than the creation of the problems of society. Poverty is not God ordained, it’s man created.
We, you know, we can deal with ecological devastation. We can have clean air, clean water, we have the technology to do that.
But we’re gonna have to have not a partisan movement, but a moral movement. I love the fact that Dr. King never said the Democratic civil rights movement. Or Republican civil rights movement. He just said the civil rights movement, and he laid it out in moral terms as all those before him.
We need a moral movement that says budgets are moral issues. Education is a moral issue. Racist voter suppression is a moral issue. Unnecessary mass incarceration is a moral issue. Attacks on our immigrant communities, denying indigenous people rights.
I believe that we can solve this but we can’t solve it staying apart. And I believe the South is critical. Coming together in the South.
If you’re black and you’re poor, and can’t pay your light bill, you’re white and you’re poor and can’t pay your light bills, Latino, Asian, Native. If your lights go out, we’re all black in the dark. If you can’t feed your child, they don’t cry black. They don’t cry, white. They cry pain, they cry hunger. The South needs labor rights. We need higher wages. We don’t need we don’t need jobs with low wages. You know, slavery was full employment with no wages. You know, but we’re not going to get there following the mythology that there was always pitted against.
There’s always been even in the South a remnant of people who knew better and right now, with remigration of African Americans and immigration. The South is now 40% African American. I’ve traveled to Mississippi, Louisiana and the poor people’s campaign everywhere we go the house is full of white and black people together and Latino people.
I was in Mississippi recently, one white lady said, I grew up with this stuff and it’s time for it to stop. She wasn’t just talking about calling somebody N-words. She was talking about politicians pitting people against one another and then using their power to do nothing but give tax cuts to the wealthy. And to disable the democracy so people can rob it of its resources.
And because the language of left vs. right, Democrat vs. Republican, liberal vs. conservative, is too puny. It’s too anemic to address the deep problems that our society faces that we can address. Not if we have resources but if we have the moral will.
For more about the Poor People’s Coalition, listen to the full episode here.