Rev. William Barber on the Political Power of Poor People: ‘We Have to Change Our Whole Narrative’

Reverend William Barber speaks to the press in 2016. Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Not long before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. announced the formation of the Poor People’s Campaign. The project would eventually unite poor whites from Appalachia with farmworkers, indigenous people, and black civil-rights activists. After King’s death in 1968, the campaign marshaled a significant mobilization in Washington, D.C., and then went quiet — until 2017. Revived by Reverend William Barber and Reverend Liz Theoharis, the renewed Poor People’s Campaign continues the mission set out by King and his allies so many decades ago. Its ambitions are broad: On its website, it says it intends to “lift up and deepen the leadership of those most affected by systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, and ecological devastation.” It goes on to state, bluntly, that “people should not live in or die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist.”

Since its revival, the multiracial, interfaith campaign organized six weeks of civil disobedience last year in addition to bus tours of impoverished communities. Earlier this year, the campaign also hosted several Democratic candidates for president, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris, at a forum so they could answer questions from activists. (Another candidate, Pete Buttigieg, spoke at Barber’s Goldsboro, North Carolina, church in recent days.) In June 2020, the campaign intends to organize a march in Washington, D.C., to coincide with its first ever Poor People’s Assembly, which will train the nation’s attention on poverty and related issues ahead of the presidential election. That work serves the campaign’s principal goals: to force a more honest conversation about the state of inequality in America, and to make sure that conversation leads to substantive political change.

The new Poor People’s Campaign builds in part on the Moral Mondays movement, which began in 2013 as a series of demonstrations against the policies of North Carolina’s then-governor, Pat McCrory. Barber, known to many as one of the lead organizers of the Moral Mondays protests, spoke to Intelligencer two weeks ago about the Poor People’s Campaign, the upcoming election, and the obstacles in the way of a more equitable American future.

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.

Polling suggests that Americans tend to think of themselves as middle class, even if their household incomes are low. But historically, the Poor People’s Campaign has fractured that myth by emphasizing poverty. Why is it so important for struggling people to understand themselves as poor or working class?
This campaign is being built from the bottom up. It is poor people, impacted people saying it’s time for us to unite together and transform the reality that they do not have to be. And they were the ones that told us we need to make this clear: that in this nation, a nation that gives trillions of dollars of tax cuts to benefit 75,000 or 100,000 people, there are also 140 million poor and low-wealth people. Some of them are three- or four-hundred dollars from pure economic destruction. Many of them are also living on the street.

One of the problems with the polling is that the polling operates in a narrative that oftentimes uses the government numbers for poverty and not the actual number for poverty that we use in our empirical data study called “The Souls of Poor Folk.” Also, over the years, poverty has been racialized so badly that some people tend to resist the category of poverty.

But a lot of the polls, they haven’t been the places we go, in the hills of Kentucky where people are very clear that they are poor and low-wealth. Or in the Delta of Mississippi. And they are not ashamed of being poor. They are ashamed of a country that continues to push policies that create poverty. Poverty is not, for them, something that they have created because of their lack of initiative. You know, we talk about the working poor, as if the rest of poor folk aren’t doing anything. The problem is not a lack of morality, it is a fractured and broken system that tends to lean itself toward the middle-class and the wealthy. When we even have political discussions, since 1968 and 1969, we have had the Republicans racializing poverty and Democrats running from poverty. Even the word “poverty” has almost been removed from the political discourse. In 2016, there were 26 presidential debates. Not one was about poverty.

Trump is very good, obviously, at pitting people against each other in a way that is heavily racialized. But the Poor People’s Campaign is a multiracial coalition. That really presents another way of being, doesn’t it?
It really does. To understand Trump you almost have to step away from him and understand the Southern Strategy that began in 1968 as the attacks on the war against poverty were beginning to work and King had been killed. What you have is an assassination of a movement. You also have at that time Strom Thurmond, Lee Atwater, and other people distinctly decide that we’re going to push racial division, and we’re going to use three or four tactics. Number one, we’re not going to use the very inflammatory words, politically. We’re not going to use the N-word. We’re going to talk about things like tax cuts and forced busing as a states’ rights issue, and the danger of entitlement. And we’ve got to create a narrative that basically blames poor people, especially black and brown poor people, for everybody else’s problems.

They called it positive polarization and they knew it could drive a wedge. Dr. King said in 1965 on the steps of an Alabama courthouse that this tactic had been used all the way back in the 1800s, that every time black and white poor people had the potential to create a political base that could transform the country, the racist aristocracy would always sow division. So the segregation of society was created as a way to undermine a power that could reset economic justice in this country. I like to give that history because Trump is the recipient of years and years of this kind of division.

I want to talk about religion for a second. The Christian right is in power right now, and for decades, they’ve heavily influenced the way we talk about values and morality. What does the religious left have to offer here?
So first of all, the practice of religion used in the service of oppression, injustice, racism, and economic denial is as old as the country. It’s not new, it’s slaveholder religion.

I can say that I’m a theologically conservative liberal, Evangelical Pentecostal Biblicist. Basically, I’m a Christian. But what does it mean to be a left Christian, or a right Christian? It’s not like both have equal moral standing. It’s not conservative versus liberal. It’s right versus wrong.

It is indisputable that in the Christian and Hebrew Bible, there are more than 2,500 scriptures that talk about the responsibility of people of faith to challenge the nations, to deal with the issue of poverty, the sick, the children, protect the women and to welcome the immigrant. Indisputable. As a Christian, it is indisputable that Jesus began his ministry with good news to the poor.

Part of what we are doing in this movement with people of faith from every different direction is saying, we’re no longer going to sit back and allow Christian nationalism, so-called white Evangelicalism, to dominate. To suggest that if you’re against abortion, you’re against women’s right to choose, you’re for guns, for prayer in schools, for tax cuts, a Republican, then you have taken the moral position, that is modern-day heresy. And we have to challenge it. But we’re not just going to challenge it just emotionally. We’re saying if you want to have a discussion about morality from a Biblical standpoint, then let’s have a real one.

What do you think poor people need that they aren’t currently getting from their elected representatives in either party?
One thing is, in this country, if you’re not in the narrative, you’re not going to be in the policy. So we’ve said to each presidential candidate, will you commit to demanding that we have full, open debates to talk about the need to address the moral crisis and the economic crisis of poverty and the injustices that interlock with it?

We have to change our whole narrative. Seven people die from vaping, and it’s a national emergency. Columbia University says 200,000 people die each year from poverty and it’s not a national emergency? One person is shot by a racist cop and we get in the street and we should, but almost 5,000 people die for every 1 million people that do not have health care, according to a study at Harvard, and there’s no outrage. That has to change.

Poor and low-wealth people are seeing the need to galvanize themselves around an agenda, not a party, not a person, but an agenda. They are that sleeping giant, if you will, the power base that could reset American politics right now. Forty-three percent of this nation is not being discussed or talked about. For instance, if you run the table in the south from Virginia to Texas, you end up with about 168, 170 electoral votes. Thirteen states. And yet all 13 are high-poverty states. Denial of health-care states, voter-suppression states. What happens if a movement is able to help people see how they’re being played against each other? You could reset the entire political calculus. And that’s where I think that party politics has missed it, with this constant conversation about the middle-class and welfare and writing off 140 million low-income and low-wealth people. Forty-three percent of this nation is not being discussed or talked about.

Why do you think that parties are writing off poor and low-wealth people?
Republicans tend to racialize it. It plays into their racial narrative. They flip back, and say to poor whites, “You’re poor because we’re over here trying to help these people.” That’s the philosophy around so-called entitlements and why they need to be reformed or stopped, because it was breaking the nation and holding it back: All these poor people over here, i.e. black and brown people, i.e. people who are lazy, it’s their fault. That disables a real conversation about poverty.

And then on the Democratic side, somebody has spooked them. I don’t know what in the world has happened. I don’t understand how you come from the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson and now you’re scared of addressing the issue of poverty. Their consultants or whoever has told them, “Don’t say the word poverty.” And so they come up with all of these, I won’t call them innuendos, but all of these ways of trying to say “poverty” without actually saying the word. They talk about “the working poor.” Or people “struggling to afford the American dream.” People who are “trying to get up.” No, some folk are just poor!

Do you think there’s a lack of a sense of urgency?
Yes. It could be fixed quickly. There are things we could do. Marian Wright Edelman said we could take 2 percent of the federal budget and put it toward programs that we know work, and eradicate 60 percent of child poverty. We could raise the minimum wage to $15 immediately, and bam, 30 million people would be raised up to a living wage.

Elizabeth Warren, I thank God for her, but I wish her, Bernie, any of them would have started out not with “here’s my plan to fix it and how much it will cost.” Flip the question. What will it cost us not to fix it?

How have movements like Fight for 15 and Red for Ed, the teachers strike movement, helped drive this point home, that we ought to discuss poverty more openly?
Yeah. In fact, the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina helped to set the framework for Fight for 15. I’ve been involved with Fight for 15 from the get out, the first national speaker. But they also learned from the tactics of Moral Monday. You have to raise the issue, keep it in front of the people. So, yes, Fight for 15 and other movements are critical.

So we support and endorse many movements. We have now 15 so religious groups and denominations. We have people that are not necessarily people of faith. In addition to the three coordinated committees in 43 states and the District of Columbia, we have about 120 or so other organizations involved. And it’s not about them coming under one person’s leadership. It’s fusion organizing. This is coalition.

So it’s solidarity?
Even more than solidarity. It’s the sense that I’m not gonna allow people to give me a victory here while I write you off over there. So when we go in a place like, say, eastern Kentucky in Appalachia, I don’t change what I say about race there. That’s what politicians do. I don’t do that. I say y’all, let’s do something. And we put up maps. And we say, now in West Virginia, you have voter suppression, and we put that map up. And then we say, did you also know in West Virginia you have a high level of poverty. We’ll do child poverty. Then we’ll do women in poverty, then we do the denial of health care, then we do denial of living wages, denial of union rights, denial of LGBTQ rights, denial of women’s rights. And then we step back and say, do you see the thing about this national map? The same states that do the race thing are doing this to you too.

And I had one white guy in Appalachia who stood up and said, “DAMN!” I’m not being facetious. He said, “Reverend Barber, they’ve been playing us.” And I said that’s right. We were there in Kentucky, and some people told us not to go to Harlan County. Harlan County, where Justice Harlan came from, the only Supreme Court justice that voted against Plessy v. Ferguson. Harlan County, where Lyndon B. Johnson started the War on Poverty. Democrats hadn’t been to Harlan County since I don’t know when. I mean, they just write it off. But we had 300 folk in the middle of the day turn out.

I went outside with one guy and he said, “I’m a McCoy.” I said, “What kind of McCoy?” He said again, “I’m a McCoy.” And then I said, “Yes sir, I understand.” He said, “We ready to fight.” I told him this is a nonviolent movement. He said, “I get it, but let me tell you, you’ve got a lot of friends up here.” I told him, “Wait a minute, people tell me this is Trump country. Why did folk vote for Trump?”

He said, “Look, we knew Trump was … ” and he used an expletive. He said, “Folks are hurting, and needed more attention, they want people to know.” Democrats haven’t been back here since Lyndon B. Johnson came back here. These hills are full of people who, if you came out here and talked to them and didn’t just write them off as ignorant and let them know you were serious about addressing the issue, even if you didn’t totally change the county, you could close the margins — i.e., what just happened.

Yes, that’s exactly what happened with the election of Andy Beshear.
And what did the governor say that night? We never endorsed Beshear in the campaign. We endorse an agenda, we exposed the current government. [Matt] Bevin pushed back black folk from Louisville and white folk from eastern Kentucky when he wouldn’t let them come into the statehouse. And it went all over the news and people saw. We pushed an agenda that he resisted. And what did the new governor say when he accepted? He said this campaign is not about Democratic versus Republican, liberal versus conservative, right versus wrong. He actually gravitated to the language of the Poor People’s Campaign because he saw a movement — our campaign, and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth — bringing folk together. Two of the five or six counties we worked in heavily for a couple of years flipped.

It’s interesting that you say that, because we’ve heard a lot this election cycle about the notion of electability. People are afraid that certain candidates aren’t electable because they back policies like Medicare for All, or they’re talking about poverty, or they’re going after billionaire CEOs. What do you think of that conversation?
I think that I’m always amazed by people who say that things are unelectable, people are unelectable. Nelson Mandela said that it’s always impossible until you do it. There’s a crowd that always says it’s impossible. Lincoln was unelectable. No one thought Franklin Roosevelt could get elected with polio. Half of all of the things we enjoy today, people a hundred years ago said was impossible. Medicaid. Living wage. The eight-hour workday.

What you have is almost a kind of lazy politics. It wants you to deny what you really believe or deny fighting for what’s right or deny the hard work of showing the American people. Now sure, if you do politics as we’ve been doing, a lot of things are impossible because there’s no real focus, no real conversation. But what if you change? What if you force the media and others into areas to see. What if America sees itself and understands how desperate things are? Do you believe that the conscience of this nation is so dim and so dark and so dull that people wouldn’t be moved? Because if that’s what you believe, then we have a problem bigger than our politics.

Rev. William Barber on the Political Power of Poor People