It wasn’t the first time the Reverend Dr. William Barber, a pastor in Goldsboro, No. Carolina and co-founder of The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, landed in jail, but it was the first time in Washington, DC. He was arrested in June while leading a peaceful protest in front of the Supreme Court advocating for the protection of Americans’ voting rights. It was one among many of the organization’s “Moral Mondays,” in which people around the country were advocating with him, and for what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “a revolution of values” when he started the original Poor People’s Campaign.
Rev. Barber first came to national attention when he spoke at the Democratic Convention in 2015. He is a quietly powerful man who is now garnering the attention he deserves because of appearances on the liberal media and a recent New Yorker Magazine in-depth profile. Being in the spotlight probably makes him uncomfortable; he is a shy man who suffers from a painful chronic condition that makes his large figure lean forward perpetually. But he keeps putting himself out there because he is passionately committed to social justice.
It is impossible to talk about Rev. Barber without also remembering Dr. King’s work. So I went back to King’s famous 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” considered one of the most famous letters in American history. Revisiting the letter was a profoundly moving experience given the state of America today. It underscored for me the urgency of Barber’s revival of the “Poor People’s Campaign” and the connections the campaign makes between all the issues that drive Dr. Barber’s tireless work urging people to “come together to break the silence and tell the truth about the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and our distorted moral narrative.”
Rev. Barber is a practical theologian. He understands the power and political landscape under which he struggles. He knows that his quest for mercy and justice is up against unfavorable odds. But he, like Dr. King, believes change is possible when people come together, across racial lines and in spite of others barriers imposed by those in power. That’s what his multi-racial coalition is all about, and it shouldn’t be written off as impossibly Pollyana-ish.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in May, Dr. Barber explained his motivation for resurrecting the Poor People’s Campaign. “For too long,” he said, “we’ve accepted this kind of moral narrative in America that has blamed poor people for their poverty and has pitted people against each other … We’ve got to have what we call moral dissent, moral resistance and a moral vision in this moment.”
“Fifty years ago, we were fighting to come forward,” Barber continued. “Fifty years later we are fighting retrogression. We have an impoverished democracy that is going backwards rather forward.” And he points out, it’s not solely because Donald Trump is in office. Twenty-three states since 2010 have passed voter suppression laws. The same states are fighting living wages, denying healthcare, discriminating against immigrants, women, and LBGTQ communities, and eviscerating the education system.
Rev. Barber argues that racism and voter suppression are deeply connected to issues of poverty, and that in order to address racism and poverty, we must also address ecological problems as well as an economy that favors militarism. We also have to understand and resist the “false moral narrative of religious nationalism.” The goal all along,” according to Dr. Barber, “has been to change the model of conversation so it was no longer about civil rights and moral issues, but to trick people into voting against their own self-interest.”
The intersectionality of issues relating to social justice is key to understanding what drove Dr. King and what now drives Dr. Barber in today’s Poor People’s Campaign. Stated simply, “Some things aren’t left or right, liberal or conservative. Some things are simply right or wrong,” Barber has said as he tries to resurrect a “moral revival.” That’s exactly where Dr. King was coming from all those years ago.
In explaining to prominent white clergymen in Birmingham who opposed his civil disobedience there, Dr. King wrote in his famous letter, “I am cognizant of the inter-relatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
It’s really as simple, and as deeply complicated, as that. Like Dr. King, the Rev. Dr. William Barber felt “morally obligated to negotiate for the common good” on behalf of all of us. Standing on the steps of the Supreme Court knowing he risked arrest, he understood the profound urgency of resisting injustice, and of repairing the fabric of our mutual destiny. For that, given what is happening in our country right now, we must all be deeply grateful.