Video and Transcript: Opening Keynote with Rev. Dr. William Barber

In this powerful address from the 2021 Collective Impact Convening, Rev. Dr. William Barber (Repairers of the Breach) issues a call to action to not return to the “normal” of pre-covid, and to recognize the systemic inequities that existed before and contributed to why the pandemic has had such a devastating impact on so many people and communities. Rev. Dr. Barber describes that what’s needed now is for folks to come together, and through the strengths of coalitions, work to challenge these systemic inequities that have existed for too long.

Preceding this talk, poet Azura Tyabji shares her poem Allegiance. This session was originally held on April 27, 2021.

Invitation and Frame for this Discussion:

When this talk originally was held in April, a participant asked why the Collective Impact Forum would host someone who was speaking from the position of a specific religious faith, in this case, Christianity. We responded that the 2021 Action Summit, and the Collective Impact Forum itself, highlights speakers from multiple faiths and speakers who do not follow a specific faith or spirituality. We believe that in our work to fight inequity and create positive change for everyone together, we need to learn from a variety of experiences and people. These sources of knowledge include from community members who follow a specific faith and community members who do not follow a specific faith.

In this invitation, we encourage everyone to approach the variety of voices with curiosity and a sense that we are here to learn from each other so that we may all reach our goals. Not everything we learn will be directly applicable to our own context, but we believe everyone has something to offer, that there is something we can learn from everyone’s story, and that we can be present with these experiences. Please join us in being open to a wide array of experiences so that we may better learn from each other.

Video and transcript below. For a podcast version, please visit our podcast page for this session, and you can listen on your preferred podcast platform.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: So now it is my absolute pleasure to transition us to the next part of our opening. I would love to introduce Azura Tyabji. Throughout the action summit we will look toward the arts to help us think, feel, and experience in different ways. We’re so delighted to have Azura help us do that today. She is a poet and spoken word artist from Seattle, Washington, and author of Stepwell Poetry Northwest 2018. She was the 2018-19 Seattle youth poet laureate and national youth poet laureate ambassador for the west region of the U.S. She writes from the convergence of her Black and Indian identities and strives to lend her voice to movements for liberation. Currently, she studies as a First Wave scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Over to you Azura.

Azura Tyabji: Hello everyone. I’m just in so much awe of everyone’s responses and where everyone is coming from this morning, evening, afternoon. I’m so thrilled to join you all.

Again, my name is Azura Tyabji. I’m a poet from Seattle, Washington, as Jennifer mentioned. I’m just thrilled to share this space with you all today. We’re coming from all across the country. We’re coming from all across the world and we’re uniting across borders like whether that be the states, the nations we’re coming from, the sectors that we each represent, the struggles that we are each championing. We’re also coming across borders of experiences and identities and we’re here to create a new paradigm change together.

The poem I’d like to offer you today to get this whole event started is entitled Allegiance. I’m thinking a lot about allegiance to a country, in my case, America, that is fraught with injustice and how allegiance to a country is not enough for me, at least to create change. To me, allegiance means commitments. It means loyalty to a capacity for change. It means reverence.

My community is a nation I pledge allegiance to. I have allegiance to my family. I have allegiance to my friends who support me. My block, my neighborhood, my community. I hope the poem that I share compels you to think about who and what you have allegiance for. I think it’s in this commitment and reverence for what we stand for that lays foundations for the change that we want to make possible together. This is my poem, Allegiance, from my poetry collection, Stepwell. Thank you for having me.

Dear America, as much as you believe your walls are the only foundations I need, I still have faith in other nations.

To begin, I pledge allegiance to my papa whose embrace feels like continents.

I pledge allegiance to the girls on Instagram who gas each other up in every selfie.

I pledge allegiance to the heart-eyes emoji and its star-spangled cousin.

I pledge allegiance to la tienda on the corner by the train sheltering kids who just don’t want to go home yet.

I pledge allegiance to The Station and the murals in SoDo.

I pledge allegiance to the Soufend, to a Northwest summer lake still cold as my brother implodes its tides.

I pledge allegiance to the last brave gulp of air before someone learns to swim.

I pledge allegiance to libraries and everywhere else left you don’t have to pay to exist.

I pledge allegiance to the cocooning tent city on Town Hall’s lawn. I pledge allegiance to the requests blasting outside the youth jail on New Year’s.

I pledge allegiance to the external battery friend. I pledge allegiance to the bus drivers who wait.

America, I’m not starved of faith. These too are nations in repair of you.

I need justice not hung by a price tag. I need patriotism that’s more than a stiletto on someone else’s pulse because America, you have left the porch light off far too many times that you are running out of chances to convince me you are still home.

I do not worship your tyranny. I do not want to fill its shoes either.

I don’t have a name for the change that’s happening yet but just know that I’ll be there juggling the pearls in my shoes as I sharpen my oyster knife on the mountain.

I’ll sit this squirming nation between my mama’s knees as the bristle brush scrapes a pink trail down its coaxed neck.

I will dare you America to move your head an inch before you make this transformation take any longer, be any more painful than it already has to be.

America, the ocean will not part for those unwilling to wet their feet.

My poetry, we are the mouse at the foot of your elephant. We will leave you running humbled knowing we grew someplace brighter where your walls once trampled.

Thank you.

Sheri Brady: Thank you Azura. That was beautiful. Thank you so much.

Now to the main event. I am pleased to introduce our keynote speaker, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber. Rev. Dr. Barber’s full bio can be found on EventMobi, but here are some highlights.

Rev. Dr. Barber is the president and senior lecturer of Repairs of the Breach, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, A National Call for Moral Revival, bishop of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, visiting professor at the Union Theological Seminary, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and the author of four books.

He is also the architect of the Moral Movement, which began with weekly Moral Monday protests at the North Carolina Assembly in 2013, and recently relaunched again online in August 2020 under the banner of the Poor People’s Campaign.

No simple words that I could say could do justice for the work of the Poor People’s Campaign. Here is a video that captures the heart, the soul, the fire and the power of the movement before Dr. Barber speaks.

I worked 41 years in the coal mines. I have black lung and it’s just unfathomable what these poor coal miners have to go through in order to get what they have worked for and deserve.

At one time, poverty was a temporary condition. You were on a down slope for a minute but you could bounce back up. We can’t bounce back up today. It’s permanent. We’re not going back to the factory and building cars and trucks like we once did.

A job working at McDonald’s or the grocery store doesn’t pay enough for one person to live.

We work a 40-hour work week. It’s still not enough, living from paycheck to paycheck. Rent is $600 a month. We got water bill, electricity. I do this for my kids and it hurts.

I’m 46 years old. I’ve lived in poverty here in West Virginia every day of my life and I’m working. I am working poor with a bachelor’s degree. I’m doing the best I can with what I have.

During the height of mass water shutoffs, this entire neighborhood was shut off all at one time.

I saw all my neighbors get shut off right in front me.

It was kind of terrifying.

I’m 42 years old and I’m a cashier at McDonald’s.

I had lost my house. You’re welcome to come inside.

There’s a lot of people that are living in their cars. You never notice until you’re in the same situation.

What am I supposed to give my children? I’m paying all these bills. They need school clothes and stuff. They be asking me for it. I can’t give it to them.

Now I’m a Kansas farmer’s wife. Kansas farmers are committing suicide. Why? They’re usually in debt up to their eyeballs.

I see poverty in my own community. There’s a 70% unemployment rate in the reservation right now.

Here in New York City, we’re home to millionaires and billionaires and we have so many people living in the streets and that’s just not right.

I’ve been a homeless veteran twice. Lived in a shelter.

I’ve been living down here since I was 17.

My only chance of going to college was joining the army.

We are demanding that we stop the war on our poor.

700,000 people in this country are on the verge of losing their food stamps.

This budget calls for shrinking the social safety net, programs like Medicare.

I just know that everything that’s happening to us isn’t right.

I’m in Stage 5 of kidney disease. I fell behind of my health care and they canceled my health insurance. They told me I have to wait until open enrollment. There’s only five stages of kidney disease and I’m in the fifth stage.

It’s murder. If you ask me, it’s murder.

I lost a son to their battles and I lost a daughter.

No parent in America should have to bury their children for a lack of Medicaid especially.

I’m wailing because my children are no more.

My god, my god.

I’m wailing, wailing, because my babies ain’t no more! How many more babies? How many more children?

No more. No more.

I want you to know that when hands that once picked cotton join hands of Latino, join hands of progressive Whites, join faith hands and labor hands and Asian hands and Native American hands and poor hands and wealthy hands with a conscience and gay hands and straight hands and trans hands and Christian hands and Jewish hands and Muslim hands and Hindu hands and Buddhist hands, when we all get together, we are an instrument of redemption.

When we join hands, we can revive and make sure that the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and equal protection under the law is never taken away from anybody. So I got a question. Are the rejected ready to revive and declare that this land is your land? This land is my land? This land is our land and together from the state house to the White House, the rejected are going to demand that this nation never give up on being one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. [end of video]

Rev. Dr. William Barber: Let me greet all of you who have joined this impact gathering. I am more than honored to be here with you. In fact, I’m quite humbled when I look at what you’ve been doing since 2011 and I’m so thankful that you would allow us to have a word in helping to frame where we are and what we must do in this moment.

I hope you can hear me. Somebody in the chat can just say, “We can hear you Reverend.” That’s just the southern preacher in me. I normally need to hear somebody say something back to me. Thank you so much.

I have been spending a lot of time in COVID modeling Howard Thurman and listening to the voices that are yet gone, that are not here anymore. Spending time musing with Frederick Douglas and Mother Jones and Harriet Tubman and Fannie Lou Hamer and Rabbi Heschel. They’re gone but their words still speak to us.

There’s a scripture that I just cannot get away from. It’s almost as though the spirit has said, “Everywhere you go, this is what you need to say.” It’s Hebrews Chapter 10 where it says, “We are not of those,” verse 10:39, “We are not of those who shrink back unto destruction. But we are those who persevere to the salvation of the soul.” That was a favorite passage of scripture and has been of the church of people of faith who fight for justice and was of the civil rights movement and Dr. King.

It often is said that when they would come places and someone had bombed a home or burned a home or beaten people, they would get together and they would quote this scripture. “We are not of those who shrink back unto destruction but we are those who persevere unto the salvation of the soul. Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews Chapter 10, verse 39 and following.

As I listened to this scripture, I found myself over and over again—I was just in Memphis where we dedicated to finish and complete and to bring forth the Poor People’s Campaign again. I was standing looking into the room where Dr. King spent his last hours. I was there visiting, helping people fight against an oil pipeline. I went by the museum, Civil Rights Museum. Nobody was there. It was just a few of us stood out on that balcony because while I’ve been in COVID, this scripture and the last sermon of Dr. King has really been in my spirit.

On the evening before he was murdered and shot down outside the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee, Dr. King offered a conclusion that serves well as a starting point for us in 2020. A lot of people think that that speech entitled was “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” but that’s what we call in southern Black preaching the closing the hoop. Just like many people think the speech I have a Dream was I Have a Dream, but the actual title of the speech was “Normalcy Never Again” or “Normalcy No Longer.”

In that last speech, sermon that Dr. King declared that America as sick. He had come out against the trion evils of militarism, poverty, and racism one year earlier and he was killed exactly to the date one year later. When he did, he lost a lot of people. Civil rights organizations came out against him when he connected racism, militarism, and poverty. The White House cut him off. Some of his own people left. Preachers left him. He went out and found a group of people among the rejected who knew that we had to address the issues of the two Americas.

He had been talking since the 1950s in some of his sermons about how the 1% ruled over the 99%. But when he put it together, racism, poverty, militarism were the trion evils, that’s what needed to be addressed. He was on his way to Washington for a gathering of the Poor People’s Campaign that would not leave Washington until substantial change came. He knew America was sick. Sick with violence. Sick with poverty. Sick with militarism. Sick with racism.

As he was making his conclusion in that sermon that night, he said, “Let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point. We have to see it through because we either go up together or we go down together.” He was there standing with garbage workers, standing with organizing Black and White and Brown and Native and Asian and poor and low-wealth people, and he said nothing would be more tragic than for us to stop at this point. Thirteen words that served as a conclusion point for him but ought to serve as a starting point for us.

Nothing would be more tragic than for us to stop at this point.

He didn’t live to see another 24 hours but a century later, excuse me, but a half century later we still face the need to give ourselves to the movement to the end. Extremists who have worked to hijack the political landscape have worked in concert with a bunch of narcissistic charlatans who play racism and classism, who are the actual ones that try to steal elections through reconstruction and who declare when once they steal elections or cheat to win elections that their goal is to deconstruct the federal government.

We just came through a place, a political time where 10 million more people voted for the opposition candidates in Congress, and four million more people voted for the person that actually sat in the White House because of the antiquated racialized law called the electoral college. Nothing would be more tragic than for us to stop at this point.

We saw the January 6th insurrection but for people of faith, people of color, people who have been on the side of justice, we know that was not even the worst of its type in the history of this nation. We know that’s one of the mistakes that the commentators made because some of us know about the Wilmington riots of 1898 and Tulsa riots, and riots across the country, or the riots that happened in Red Summer in 1919 right in the middle of another pandemic when a racist occupied the White House named Woodrow Wilson who was educated, who was a governor, who was president of a university that proves that education alone does not keep you from being a racist, does not keep you from being someone who is greedy and cares only—does not keep you from lying because Woodrow Wilson claimed that the flu then, that flu, he claimed it was the Spanish flu, trying to blame it on people of Latino descent even then. He played Birth of a Nation in the Oval Office that glorified the Klan long before Bannon did it with the Trump administration.

There’s a long history of violence in this country, long before the insurrection that we saw on January 6th. Now we’re finding out when people first said this is a bunch of backwater people and we find, no, these were middle-class and educated folk who were so given not so much to a lie but to the truth that they had come to believe, that their White supremacy is what ought to be.

I often say some of the people’s problem is they see the changing of America because some people ask, you know, when can we get back to the unity we had, and I say, well, when was that? But some of the people’s problem that we saw in the insurrection, it’s not just Trump, it’s that as they see the changing demographics, they are literally having to admit to them, their parents, their mamas and daddies lied to them, lied to them about the world, lied to them about the real history of this nation. That’s a hard thing to stomach, and so I wouldn’t give Trump all the credit that he is the reason. Nell Painter at Princeton—she’s a historian—said that Trump is the iconography of a too often repeated American reality.

You ask the Native Americans of this country if this is the first time we’ve seen unchecked violence like we saw on January 6th. Ask our Asian brothers and sisters. Ask our Latino brothers and sisters, and remember when we call them aliens and undocumented for coming back to the land we stole from them, this country stole from them, Texas and New Mexico and California were once Mexico. They are Americans, they’re just from South America. Be very clear. They are really coming back to their own home, and we’ve never owned the fact that the reason Texas pulled out of Mexico is because Mexico was antislavery before Texas.

Let us not forget that there was an insurrection in the church in the 1840s before there was a civil war, and the nation’s churches split right down the middle, north and south, over the issue of slavery and racism.

Let us not forget what Ta-Nehisi Coates has reminded us that race is not the father of racism. Racism is the father of race, that systemic racism was born after the Bacon Rebellion in this country when Black and White people stood up against the aristocracy in the South in Virginia, and the economic aristocracy said we have to figure out a way that White indentured servants will never identify themselves with Black folk or slaves, and so they created race in the Virginia codes to separate Black and White people from ever building coalitions together to stand against the evils and greed of the southern aristocracy.

Please do not act as though January 6th is something new in America. Nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now.

And we see the enablers doubling down. One of the things that I’m glad of is that the folk that are acting out like Lindsey Graham and like McConnell, they didn’t stop after Trump went out because we needed to stop blaming everything on Trump. Trump is a symptom. Trump is like—I hope this doesn’t mess with anybody too bad—Trump is like snot. You know that’s not the cold, that’s not the pneumonia, that’s the symptom of the pneumonia. That’s the mucus but we need to know that there would have not been a Trump, if there had not been an audience prepared ever since the 1960s when the southern strategy and the Dixiecrats took over the Republican Party and said we’re going to make the Republican Party the party of the White man in the south, and the advisers to Richard Nixon said we know how to win, and they developed a concept called positive division, positive disunity. They said we can use race and use class to deliberately divide the country, and if we divide the country, we will get the bigger half but we must implement a way to divide the country.

In 1965 Dr. King told us that the threat of the masses of Black people and masses of White people voting together to create a new economic reality—this is what he said at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march in his speech. He said it’s what created the segregated society, it’s what creates the fight against voting rights and labor rights. It’s the fear of a fusion, Black, White, Brown, indigenous coalitions coming together. He said that in ’65.

And so we’re seeing a doubling down after Trump. It’s just showing us it wasn’t just Trump. They didn’t just buy the lie. They had been participating in creating the lie. They want to deconstruct the government. They want to serve the ruling class, and it’s all a part of a southern strategy that was developed in the ’60s that was designed to last at least 50 years, and so nothing would be more tragic than for us to stop now.

Our deepest values, our deepest religious values declare to us, for instance, in Isaiah Chapter 10, “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights.” In the gospel book that I read Jesus made it clear that nations will be judged not by their skyscrapers but how they treat the poor, the hungry, the sick, and yes, the immigrant.

But if you’re not a person of faith, that’s fine. Our Constitution says that there’s only one way to have a more perfect union. There’s only one way to heal and have domestic tranquility. Interesting to me, the Constitution does not ever mention freedom but it does mention justice which seems to suggest that there is no freedom where there is not justice which is why the first moral principle of the Constitution is we, the second moral principle is an admittance that we’re not a perfect union or we must strive to be so, and the third principle is the only way to that is to establish justice. Then you can get to ensuring domestic tranquility.

And then in order to hold on to domestic tranquility you have to provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and to the 14th Amendment that saved the whole Constitution and the possibility of this democracy, you must provide equal protection under the law for all people, and the problem has been as one writer said, I think his name was James Calhoun, that the issue of race, that whenever we’ve written constitutions or written laws, it’s always been under the table, like a cobra ready to strike. I would daresay today race and poverty, let us not forget when this country was founded, not only did it say Black people couldn’t vote but it said poor White men without land couldn’t vote and women and natives.

Sometimes we need to stop asking when did we get this way as America and admit we’ve always been this way. Part of the problem is we’ve never had metanoia. We’ve never had real repentance. We keep acting as though the best is behind us when in fact, we’re always pursuing what we say on paper but we’ve never fully done in practice. Nothing would be more tragic than for us to stop now.

So right now in the nation we have political extremists and religious nationalists who choose to keep focusing on division. They are fearful of a changing democracy. They know they can’t stop the demographic shifts but they’re trying to hold on as long as they can, and they’re hurting poor people while giving greedy, tax welfare to the wealthy. They fuel xenophobia and attack immigrants and deny rights to women and LGBTQ community, and they refuse to even protect health care and expand health care even for children.

In the face of this, I think what Dr. King said either we go up together or we go down together, and nothing would be more tragic than for us to stop at this point.

Here we are in the midst of COVID now. But it’s important also that we be careful how we frame this moment because some people say we just need to get out of COVID. We had a pandemic. But let me say there was a pandemic of poverty and racism, denial of health care before COVID ever hit. It’s one of the reasons it has hit us so hard.

There’s a Ph.D. in public health at Harvard that said what COVID did is COVID exposed the fissures of racism and poverty because before COVID there were five interlocking injustices that were who we are as America that had not been fully addressed. The first one is systemic racism in all of its forms, not just police reform but in all of its forms, all of its disparate ways, and not just Black people. Black people, Brown people, Asian people, indigenous people, and even the racism that creates collateral damage. Many times the poor are White people. Then the other interlocking injustices are systemic poverty, and then ecological devastation, the war economy, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalists.

Let me talk about systemic poverty, the ecological devastation now with health care, the war economy first and then come back to the racism which is actually the starting point but I want to come back to it and show why it’s the starting point.

We’re in a moral crisis, and when I say moral crisis, I mean any economic crisis that dismisses the least of these is a moral crisis. Before COVID, half of Americans had nothing invested in the stock market and yet we judged how the economy was doing by the stock market. That was wrong because no matter what was happening on Wall Street, it had very little to do with what was happening on back streets and back roads.

Ownership was highly concentrated and still is. The top 10% of Americans control 84% of the household-owned stocks. The same corporate tax cuts that juiced the market come back to bite the poor and the middle class which is one of the reasons- just recently the pope said that trickle-down economics and neoliberalism—trickle down that says you give to the wealthy and it will trickle down, neoliberalism says you just help the middle and everybody else will be lifted- he said has taken the world back was before COVID. Before COVID there were 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this country. Before COVID 43% of the nation was poor and low wealth. Sixty-two million people made less than $17 an hour. There was not one county in this country where working at a minimum-wage job you could afford a basic two-bedroom apartment.

Before COVID 700 people were dying a day from poverty. Before COVID 400 families made $97,000 an hour and controlled more wealth than the entire bottom 50% of the nation.

Before COVID we had a pandemic of poverty and economic inequity.

Before COVID six million people in this country who work in the restaurant industry worked for less than $2.14 an hour, and because their wages and tips are so low, they can’t even qualify for unemployment.

Before COVID we had 62 million people that made less than $17 an hour, and here’s something you should know. At the March on Washington 57 years ago, the agenda was supposed to be about jobs, justice, and civil rights, and the demand, one of them was a $2.00 minimum wage which indexed by inflation today would be $15 so we’re 57 years late on raising the minimum wage to $15. We’ve not raised the minimum wage for nine years, and when you look at African Americans who are the descendants of slavery, it took us from zero to 400 to get to 7.25. It took us 400 years to get to 7.25. We can’t wait another 400 years for basic decent pay before COVID.

Before COVID we had over four million families that get up every morning and can buy unleaded gas, and couldn’t buy unleaded water.

Before COVID we had 13.8 million households that could not afford water.

Before COVID we had pipelines being put in in places like—attempts to put them in Memphis and Cancer Alley that would destroy the aquifers in poor Black, Brown, and White communities.

Before COVID the federal government was willing to turn over the holy land of the Apache Nation to a multinational country and allow them to destroy and drill on that holy land for a mineral that 97% of what they drill and destroy would be worthless. These are the lands, the reservations that they shouldn’t even be on. They wanted to reallocate their most holy land, their Mecca, their Mount Sinai, their National Cathedral before COVID.

Before COVID 87 million people were either without health care or underinsured.

Before COVID we were the only country of the 25 wealthiest countries that still base health care on people’s jobs and not their humanity, and not their body. We are the wealthiest nation supposedly in the world before COVID.

Before COVID we were spending $.53 to $.54 of every discretionary dollar on the war economy.

Before COVID less than $.15 went to infrastructure and wages and antipoverty programs.

Before COVID one military contractor, Boeing, could have fully funded expanding health care for all of the states that denied expanding health care before COVID.

Before COVID we were putting over 750 billion dollars into the war economy and if we cut our military budget to 350 billion dollars, we would still be putting more money in our military at 350 billion dollars than Russia, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and China combined.

All of this existed before COVID. And then COVID hit and 20 plus million people lost their jobs. Over half a million people died. Columbia University did a study and said that 60% of the people didn’t have to die if we had properly addressed COVID as had already been modeled in many schools of public health.

But when we refuse the science and the arrogancy of the president and the arrogancy of the Congress. Mitch McConnell was more interested in putting people on the Supreme Court than keeping people out of caskets.

The first COVID deal that almost all Congress people, Democrat and Republican, voted for, 84% of that money went to corporations and not to the people. We’ve had COVID, you all, COVID, to kill over half million people, and no conversation about universal health care. No guarantee of sick leave. No guarantee of unemployment. No guarantee of living wages. We did give people a guaranteed name change. We call them essential workers but we treat them like expendable. Before COVID they were service workers. After COVID they were essential workers because somebody had to get the wealthy folk their meat. Somebody had to clean. Somebody had to cut the meat, to go in the grocery store so we made them go to work, called them essential workers and didn’t protect them.

So the people who work the poorest jobs got infected first, got sick first, went to the hospital first, died first but have been last to get relief.

Why could this happen during COVID? Because it was happening before COVID. Because we had a precedent of not even talking about. Think about it. If you go back before 2016 or even this past election, think about one time you have ever seen a major debate on the presidential level about poverty even though 43% of the people were poor before COVID. Think about that. When do you ever hear anybody deal with that issue? Republicans deny it. Democrats oftentimes try to find code words or euphemisms to talk about it rather than talk about the poor. They talk about people trying to make it into the middle class.

So we had a preexistent ethical pandemic toward the least of these but then in the pandemic got exposed. And then on top of all of those things the systemic poverty, the ecological devastation, the war economy. Why is it that nothing would be more tragic than for us to stop now? It’s because of the legacy of voter suppression.

I wanted to deal with this some this morning because I’m quite concerned that we keep saying we’ve got 300 and some odd bills for voter suppression and they’re doing it because they believe Trump’s lie. That’s not true.

Voter suppression was going on before Trump. How do you think—part of the reason he got in office? A lot of voter suppression bills really started after 2008 when Obama won but it wasn’t that he won. He won in the South, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, almost won South Carolina, and right after his election you remember there was a Congress person who stood up and said you are a liar? In other words, you are a liar, not just you’re lying, you’re a liar, and they refused to believe it, and then all of a sudden voter ID—you notice we’ve never had a conversation about needing voter ID before all these other elections until Black and Brown and White people started building coalitions. Now it’s fraud. Now it’s voter ID. Now it’s voter suppression. Now they want to take back same-day registration, want to take back absentee ballot when all before that was fine.

It’s because of the changing demographics. When I was president of North Carolina NAACP, you should know in 2013, not after Trump, this is way back in 2013. As soon as the Shelby decision came down that gutted Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and said that we no longer will have preclearance, that states can pass laws and they don’t have to be precleared to see first before they’re implemented if they violate people’s rights, particularly those poor and those of people of color. You can implement the law, then go to court, and then if the court finds that you were wrong, then they stop the law but by that time you’ve already used the law to elect people unconstitutionally.

Well, on the day of the Shelby decision came down that said we longer would have preclearance, one of the legislators in our state said “now that the headache has been removed,” and within no time they filed a monster voter suppression bill that sought to take from North Carolina voters what we had won in 2007 because we had won same-day registration, early voting, and 16- and 17-year-old vote. We had won all those things and now they wanted to take them back because they were used in 2008 to change the outcome of the elections in North Carolina, and it benefited people. So they wanted to retrogress and they actually went to court and said to the judge, retrogression is now OK because we don’t have to go through preclearance.

They had already gerrymandered the voting districts in 2010 and created a situation where a majority of people could vote progressive but because of the gerrymandering, the racialized gerrymandering, the extremists could still take over so by 2013 they had elected an unconstitutionally constituted general assembly.

We ended up beating them six years later in court, and the federal courts and the state courts called it “racialized gerrymandering,” but that was after they used the gerrymandering to win office, and then used that power to block living wages, block health care, attack the LGBTQ community, attack immigrants, attack women, and cut over a billion dollars from public education.

It didn’t start after Trump. It was going on anyway. Then this monster voter suppression law was passed, and it was passed without any hearings. It was passed knowing it would be devastating, and within 45 minutes of it being passed we filed a lawsuit but it took us six years, about four years, to beat them, and the courts finally said, even the Supreme Court, even the Bush-appointed court, even the Roberts court, it was so egregious that they couldn’t deny it, and they had to say and agree that it was “racism with surgical intention.”

You know how they got it? They called the board of elections and asked them for the data on when did Black people use early voting the most, and how many Black people would benefit from 16- to 17-year-old being able to preregister, and how many Black people so forth and so on. And then based on that data, we caught them through the email. That’s what they used to write the laws.

They never called anybody the N word. They never said they were doing this to hurt Black people. They used the data and then they used the data to design the laws and we caught them. They spent six million dollars of tax money, of taxpayer money, to defend voter suppression. We had pro bono lawyers, and the lawyer that we used—I want you to hear this story—was Thomas Farr and Thomas Farr was the one—the hat man for Jesse Helms, and Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond were the leaders of the southern Dixiecrats that moved into the Republican Party.

I watched that man in 2014 literally going to court and argue that retrogression, and I knew then what I know now, way before Trump, nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back.

And before Trump, since 2010, over 20-some-odd states have passed racist voter suppression laws. They’re not just buying the lie. They had already bought the lie. The truth is that they can’t win on ideas. They can win only by creating voter suppression, and they are afraid that we are about to pass the restoration of the Voting Rights Act with expansions and the Protect the Democracy Act so they’re trying to get it all in now. You need to understand it’s bigger than Trump’s lie.

That’s why the Chamber of Commerce is now—think about this—the Chamber of Commerce is now supporting voter suppression laws and anti HR 1 and anti—the Chamber of Commerce.

What did Dr. King tell us? It is the racist aristocracy that uses division. Oh, nothing would be more tragic for us to turn back.

They know. There was a study done by the Brennan Center that said that in the Congress there are nine or 10 seats that wouldn’t be where they are without racist redistricting. We know that in Mississippi, for instance, an African American almost came within two or three points of winning the United States Senate. They are like what they say in South Africa, a dying mule kicks the hardest.

We did a study this year with a Columbia University professor called “Unleashing the Power of Poor and Low-Wealth Voters” and it showed in 15 states, if Black and White and Brown and Asian poor and low-wealth voters would unite together—and by the way, it wasn’t mostly poor White voters that put Trump in office. You can just stop lying on poor and low-wealth folk. It wasn’t. The data tells us that. But they said that if those people would unite, between one and 22%, 1% in Michigan of poor and low-wealth voters, 19% in North Carolina, 4% in Florida, 14% in a place like Mississippi, 7% or 8% in Georgia, if they would unite around an agenda to impact poor and low-wealth people and vote, poor and low-wealth people could determine who sits in the presidency, who sits in the Senate, who sits in the Congress. They could change the whole Electoral College map. That’s the fear, you all, fear of these coalitions coming together.

For too long, for instance, Americans have accepted this strange narrative of so-called conservatism about the solid South and the red states and the Republicans can assume in a national election. The truth is when you see extremists put up these maps of congressional districts that show this scarlet swath across the former slave-holding states with a few clusters of blue around it, what they’re not telling you is those are optical illusions created by gerrymandering. They have stacked and cracked and packed districts but if we have the protections of the Voting Rights Act which McConnell, long before Trump, has held up for nearly 2,900 days, over seven years they have refused to fix the Voting Rights Act.

This is long before Trump. That’s what’s so ugly about what Manchin and Sinema are doing in Arizona. They are enabling those who are engaging in what Dr. King called interposition and nullification, and why are they doing it? Because they know they can’t win. They know these maps are illusions. They actually know that the South is really not extremist conservative because 70% of people even in the South want expanded health care. They disagree with systemic racism. They want to raise a living wage, and they know what Dr. King said in ’65, if these fusion coalitions come together and stand against the ruling class and stand against the aristocracy, they can change who gets elected and then change the economic structure of the nation.

That’s why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is against these voting rights laws. That’s why. And we need to understand nobody would be fighting this hard if what they’re fighting is not an endangerment to their political existence. Do you know that if we had automatic voter registration at the state level, Voting Rights Act was restored, we could fundamentally change massive voter education mobilization throughout the South, the South could fundamentally shift? They know that. That’s why there’s so much fighting. That’s why there’s so much pornographic sums of money being spent. Nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now.

Finally, we must understand that people with deep moral convictions about justice, love, and truth got to speak up and this moment from a moral perspective because we’ve got this notion of Christian nationalism. That’s the fifth interlocking injustice.

Religious Christian nationalism is a form of theological heresy. It basically says if you’re against gay people, you’re against women’s right to choose, you’re for tax cuts, you claim that Jesus was a founding member of the NRA, and you believe that Jesus is a part of a particular political party that starts with an R, that somehow that’s a godly position.

I’m here to tell you as an evangelical, that I’m conservative and liberal. I’m conservative about evil. I don’t like evil and I’m liberal about love. I’m here to tell you that I’m conservative in that I want to hold on to the fundamental principles of the gospel which is love, truth, and mercy, and I want to liberally spread it to everybody but I’m here to tell you that this Christian nationalism, this attempt to consecrate meanness and hate, when you go into Congress and you pray at the opening of Congress, P-R-A-Y, and then your policies prey, P-R-E-Y, on the very people that the Bible, that religious faith tells you to be concerned about, we have to challenge that because it’s dangerous because despots always try to create their own chaplains in order to give a moral justification for their wrongs.

So in this moment we’ve got to have moral dissent. We got to have a challenging to those who continue to try to hijack our great moral traditions and that’s going to be a part of building fusion coalitions for the common good. That’s why I’ve decided to dedicate myself to the Poor People’s Campaign. We’re organizing all across the country now. We’ve got 43 coordinating committees now and millions and thousands of people who are joining in. We’ve developed a moral budget. We’ve developed a moral agenda. It’s a fusion agenda that considers everybody. We’re organizing in Alabama and Appalachia. We’re organizing in Mississippi and Massachusetts, California and the Carolinas. We’re bringing fast food workers together from Kentucky and farmers from Kansas because this is the coalition that extremism fears, and this is the coalition that can change America.

James Baldwin said we created this world we’re living in, and we have to make it over. Dr. King knew that and we must know it. He said this in’68. The dispossessed of the nation, the poor, both White and Negro, live in an uncruel just society but they can organize a revolution. They can bring together, the very people that can challenge these interlocking injustices. That’s what we must do.

In fact when we met with the president’s policy team before the inauguration, some people said we’ll meet with the president now, we want to meet the policy people because when the president gets in office, we want to push him to have a gathering of poor and low-wealth people in the White House. But when we met with the policy people, we said to them, if you want to heal the nation, you can heal the nation but healing the nation requires some things and so we laid out 14 of them.

First of all, we have to enact comprehensive free and just COVID relief. We said it should start from the bottom.

Then we said to heal the nation, you’ve got to guarantee quality health care for all regardless of preexisting conditions. How can you come through a pandemic and then not guarantee health care?

Third, we have to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and then make it indexed on.

Then, number four, you have to update the poverty measure. We still in America claim through the government poverty measure that you’re not poor if you make $12,800 a year. Come on. We’ve got to update the poverty measure to truly measure poverty and low wealth and disparity.

Then we’ve got to guarantee housing for all.

Then we have to enact the federal jobs infrastructure program but it must be climate resilient, energy efficient, socially beneficial, and it must be targeted to poor and low-wealth communities.

Number seven, we’ve got to protect and expand voting rights and civil rights.

Number eight, we’ve got to guarantee safe and equitable public education, protections against resegregation of body and resources.

Number nine, we have to have comprehensive and just immigration reform. We have to ensure all the rights of indigenous people. We have to enact fair taxes. We have to use the power of executive orders. We have to redirect the bloated Pentagon budget toward priorities that matter for real national security, and we have to listen to poor people.

You can get this list from the Poor People’s Campaign on our website or from the Repairers of the Breach, and not only is it just those, it’s actual one, two, three steps under the things that have to be done.

We took 32 people to that meeting. When we first went to meet with them, they said we’ll meet with you and the cochair, Reverend Doctor Liz Theoharis. We said, no. They said, “Well, who do you want to bring?” We said, “Thirty-two people.” And they said, “Who are they?” We said, “We’ve got some farmers, poor farmers, and poor fast-food workers.” They said, “We’ve never had a meeting like that,” and we said, “That’s the problem. We’ve got Black people from the delta. We’ve got White people from Appalachia. That’s the problem. That’s the problem. You’ve got people in a room speculating about poor and low-wealth people when you need to be listening to poor and low-wealth people.”

That’s why on June 21st of this year we’re having a second Moral March on Washington. Poor people, low-wage workers, virtual Moral March on Washington. We had one last year, 2.4 million people showed up online. We’re having one this year but then in 2022 we’re going to have an in-person mass poor people, low-wage worker assembly, national Moral March on Washington, and at that assembly poor and low-wealth people going to talk, not people talking for them. Poor and low-wealth people are going to tell their stories and lay out the plans and the agenda and the budget, and guess what?

We did a study with EPI. You can get the study, the Economic Policy Institute, a moral agenda is also an economically sound agenda. This is what it found. It would take 750 million dollars over five years to implement automatic voter registration and make our democracy more secure, and this is just one one-thousandth of 750 billion dollars to the Pentagon. If we cut 300—if we could raise over 330 billion dollars into the economy, if we paid right now $15, a $15 living wage. We could raise 886 billion dollars in estimated annual revenue from fair taxes on the wealthy. If we invest one dollar in early childhood education, society would gain seven dollars to reduce poverty.

Yes, we’ve had some good things in the last bill but they are temporary. Even the measures around child tax credit, all that stuff needs to be permanent and more.

If we don’t do anything on climate change, it’s going to cost us 3.3 trillion dollars a year but if we do something, 200-billion-dollar investment per year in clean energy transition would begin to address climate change and create 2.7 million new jobs.

Guess finally what they told—the Special Rapporteur for poverty in the U.N. told us and what economists tell us and what Joseph Stiglitz has told us and Jeffrey Sachs and so many other people is the issue is not scarcity. That’s the lie. The issue is not a scarcity of ideas. That’s the lie. The issue is the scarcity of moral consciousness. Otto Scharmer said we got a problem in our economic system. It’s called consciousness and conscious. It’s a scarcity of conscious and a scarcity of movement that brings together all five of these issues interlocking. It raises up the people impacted by them with moral leaders. That’s why we have to do this, and nothing would be more tragic than for us to stop now.

Oh, we can do this. We can do it but we’ve got to believe this is our moment to do it.

I close with this. I’ve been wrestling a lot this year with why am I still alive. I know I’ve been around COVID. I’ve seen one family in my church, they lost 12 members. One member of the Poor People’s Campaign, 18, she’s one of our leaders, lost 25 members of her family in a 30-mile radius. Why am I still here? I’m not better than anybody else. I don’t love God more than anybody else. I’m not more faithful. I’m not less sinless. I have my own struggles. Why?

And one night it dawned on me that the issue is not why am I still here but the issue is what do you do still being here because the truth of the matter is any of us is six minutes from death. Any of us lose breath for six minutes, it’s over. The question is what do you do with your six minutes or six days or six hours or six years or 60 years?

What I’ve decided, as you know, in the past we got a history in this country of people not giving up on this democracy, and every generation has its Edmund Pettis Bridge. Every generation has to face some injustice. You know when we look back, there was always moral fusion coalitions. Slavery thought it had the last word but when Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglas hooked up with White evangelicals like William Lloyd Garrison and Harriett Beecher Stowe, they brought abolition into being. Jim Crow looked like it had the last word but when a fusion coalition including people like Dr. King and Rosa Parks and White folk like James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, and gay people like Bayard Rustin, they were able to tear Jim Crow down.

The women’s suffrage movement with Sojourner Truth and Mother Jones, and we look at the union movement, we look at A. Philip Randolph and we look at all the other White and Black union labor leaders that came together.

We look at the civil rights movement. We look at apartheid. It was Nelson Mandela. It was Winnie Mandela. But it was also White Afrikaners that decided that they had to join together.

In every moment of history, God has always been bring people together, and he’s always brought the rejected together.

There’s a great scripture in the Psalm 118 that said the stone that the builders rejected can become the chief cornerstone, and there’s a time that all of us have experienced some rejection, whether it’s the rejection because of our sexuality or our poverty or our race or our class or our kind or our religion but when the rejected come together and we recognize that whatever we have, whether it’s six more minutes or six more days or 60 years, if we come together there really are more of us than there are of them.

In fact, if we come together right we’ll get some of them to repent and come on over here and join humanity, and join really caring about one another and loving one another but what we have to decide is nothing would be more tragic than for us to stop at this point. Nothing would be more tragic than to say, well, Trump is gone, that’s it. Nothing would be more tragic for us to say if we can just get back to pre pandemic. No. We must say normalcy never again. Nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now.

And guess what? Even if we don’t fix it all, I’d rather die trying. I’d rather join up trying than live, and on the epithet of my tombstone it read that he gave up, he committed the tragedy of giving up.

My brothers and sisters, we can have change and impact. We can repair the breaches. We can. We must. We will. This is our time. God bless you.

Sheri Brady: Thank you so much, Reverend Doctor Barber. We know that you have a meeting. Thank you for spending this time with us. We have heard your message. We have heard your call to action. Many people are asking how they can connect so I know that has been put in the chat a few times.

Rev. Dr. William Barber: Please have them go straight to Repairers of the Breach and sign up there for the emails, and then click on Poor People’s link there, join us virtually on June 21st, and then let us know you want to help us mobilize for June 18th of 2022 face to face where poor and low-wealth people in this country, moral leaders and their advocates rise together to say we must address not just child poverty but poverty and low wealth and these five interlocking injustices.

This is the change that we must do now. One third of the voting electorate now is poor and low-wealth people. Fifty-five percent of poor and low-wealth people are the reason Biden and Harris are in office. Poor and low-wealth people have the power, organize around an agenda to fundamentally change this country. We can address all five of them. We must. We will.

Thank you so much because nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back at this point.

Sheri Brady: Thank you very much.

Resources referenced during this session:

Pain and Poverty in America

Repairers of the Breach:

Poor People’s Campaign:



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