On November 1, a few days before the midterm elections, Reverend William Barber II took the stage at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. He was there to talk about the movement he planned to help lead—the coming fight for “the soul of our nation.”
In an auditorium off the hall where Langston Hughes’ ashes are interred, Barber and Reverend Liz Theoharis—a black male Southerner and a white female Northeasterner, respectively—spoke about class, voting rights, politics, and morality. The two are the co-chairs of the recently launched Poor People’s Campaign, a rekindling of the wider movement that Martin Luther King, Jr. was building shortly before he was assassinated.
“If you are white, or you are black, or you are red, or you are yellow, or you are brown, and you don’t have enough money to pay your light bill, we’re all black in the dark, so we have got to have this conversation,” said Barber, leader of the Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina (and a newly minted MacArthur “genius” grant awardee). “That is why a true revolution—a mobile poor campaign—cannot just be a black movement. It has to be a black, brown, white movement that takes race and poverty together.”
Fifty years after King’s death in 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign is returning to face the same problems, and with the same principle: that people of all races who are suffering the effects of rampant greed at the hands of oligarchs share common oppression, and thus must make common cause. Theoharis, who is the founder of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice in New York City, joined Barber in Harlem to bring the message that to speak and act in “silos” of identity activist groups—black, poor, Native American, white, LGBT—falls prey to the right wing’s divide-and-conquer tactics.
Poverty, they insisted, does not honor the perceived borders of these silos. Today, a greater percentage of Native Americans live in poverty than people of any other ethnicity; there are more white people who are living in poverty than any of other race; more than a quarter of blacks and nearly a quarter of Latinx are poor.
This perspective may seem counter to the current narrative of the left in general, and of black activists in particular, with their focus on black poverty and white supremacy. But Barber asked the audience to examine the state of things more closely: “All of the states that have passed voter suppression laws have elected politicians who cut taxes for the wealthy, who are against workers’ rights, who are against insurance and immigrants, against gay people and public education. They all get elected somewhat because of racialized voter suppression. But when they get in office they pass policies that hurt mostly white people.“
Barber pointed out that on June 25, 2013, the Supreme Court removed a key provision of the voting rights act and “threw it to Congress“ to fix. “They have been sitting on fixing the voting rights act for … five years and four months,” he said. “One of the most racist, underreported acts that we have seen.”
The 2018 Poor People’s Campaign was launched on May 14, with 40 days of moral action in more than 40 states following months of training and organizing. The aim is to spark a “moral revolution,” Theoharis said, that is focused on five interlocking themes: racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, and “the false moral narrative of Christian nationalism.”
Such a fusion movement—one that brings together parties that are often played against each other—is the great fear of oligarchs, said Barber: “Ever since the Constitution was written there were some who said certain people cannot vote. Poor white people and white men without land, Native American, Women and Black people. Ever since the 15th Amendment and the 14th Amendment were written, the deconstructors of democracy have always feared black and poor white people voting together and hooking up.”
At the Schomburg Center, Barber called on those he knew were weary of the current political situation in the U.S. by making a fiery appeal for more historical context. “Folks fought through slavery—don’t you go around talking about this is the worst we’ve ever seen,” he said. “Anybody who’s white or black or brown or Asian or yellow, you have some great, great grandparents who fought for justice and fought for voting rights. Whenever people mess with those voting rights, that’s like going down to your grandmama’s grave and digging up her bones and desecrating them.You ought to not act nice about that.”
After the program, CityLab spoke via phone with Barber, reaching him in Atlanta on the eve of the midterm election as he completed three days of voter exhortation in four Southern states.
At the Schomburg you said we focus too much on Donald Trump—that he’s the symptom, not the disease—and that it has kept the left from focusing on reclaiming the South. Can you explain that?
The goal of voter suppression is to lock down the 13 former Confederate states, from say, Maryland all the way over to Texas, and then pick up Tennessee, Arkansas, and Kentucky. You get somewhere in the neighborhood of plus 170 votes, which means that you only need another 99 electoral college votes from the other 37 states. [270 electoral college votes are needed to win the presidency.]
You’re gonna give me that? Now to me, that’s a fool’s bet. You’re basically saying to the people against you, “You can have 171—I’m not really going to fight for it. I’m not going to campaign, I’m not going to organize down there. You know, they are red states.”
[But] they’re not red states: They’re unorganized states. States with large numbers of minority people that aren’t registered. They’re states where you have progressive whites, but you never really come in and work them and build them up. And they’re states with a growing Latino population, which I believe is one of the major reasons why Trump and the white nationalists are so against immigrants. They know when folks come across the border, they mostly stay south. And if their children are born here and educated here—Trump said it the other night—they’ll be able to vote.
One of the things I noticed was that when a work requirement was introduced for Medicaid in Michigan, the media reported on it as an unfair tax on blacks, turning it into a race narrative, when it turned out that more white people in Michigan would be affected by it. But whites living in a couple of counties were excluded. Do you think the media is playing into the right’s hands by focusing on such policies as a burden on blacks primarily?
When we go in these Southern states, we have these audiences of all different races, creeds, and colors when they come in. Many of them are still thinking “silo.” By the end of our training, they say, “Oh, voter suppression is not just a black issue. It’s targeted at black people, but in actuality, all of the people getting elected by voter suppression then turn around and use that power to implement policies that in raw numbers hurt mostly white people.”
If we don’t talk like that and show that, we enable the Trump and the [Mitch] McConnell and the [Paul] Ryan-type of vision, as you say.
You can’t build a fusion movement without the disaggregation of the numbers. There are progressives saying, “Well, we don’t want to disaggregate the numbers, because we don’t want people to think we are dismissing the traumatic reality of black poverty.” I say, “Do you think I’m trying to dismiss the traumatic effects of black poverty?”
What I’m trying to do is beat the poverty. You’re not going to beat it until you show all people that they have been impacted by it. When we started disaggregating the numbers, we would go to audiences and say, “66 percent of black folks are living in poverty, and 37 percent of white people. But watch this: Did you know that that 37 percent of white people is something like 40 million more people than African Americans?” That allows us to get a black mother from the Delta of Mississippi in the same room with a white mother from West Virginia, or to get black inner-city citizens from Louisville in the same room with white coal miners and working people from Eastern Kentucky.
You said you were working with economists for the Poor People’s Campaign. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
We work with the Institute for Policy Studies and we work with the Urban Institute because they talk to people on both sides of the political aisle, but they have a progressive mindset. Before we ever started the campaign, I had a long conversation with Joseph Stiglitz on the cost of inequality, which is a question that doesn’t often get asked by the media. As soon as somebody like Bernie Sanders comes out talking about Medicaid for all, even the quote-unquote liberal media will say, “Well, what’s the cost of doing this?” They never ask, “What’s the cost of not doing it?”
What are you planning next for the Poor People’s Campaign?
We’re going to be canvassing, deliberately going into poor and impacted communities. We’ve had a major political consultant give us all of the counties where poor and impacted people are and where their votes, if organized, could make a difference. Our movement has just begun.