"With Public Lamenting Comes Hope": A Conversation with Rev. William J. Barber II

Join the Poor People’s Campaign for its mass digital gathering June 20-21
June 18, 2020Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner

Reverend William J. Barber II is an American Protestant minister and political activist. He is a member of the national board of the NAACP and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

For the past decade, Rev. Barber has been a partner with the Reform Jewish Community in the work of civic engagement, election turnout, advocacy for the poor, and combating voter suppression. At the Union for Reform Judaism’s 2017 Biennial convention, he spoke about the need for a moral revival.

On a Facebook Live call on the day that George Floyd was laid to rest, I sat down with Rev. Barber to talk about his goals for the mass digital moral revival gathering he is co-leading on June 20-21. Some of our conversation is condensed here.

Rabbi Pesner: How do you see this incredibly intense moment in history?

Reverend Barber: This is a moment of deep pain; your people know about deep pain caused by a death policy. When people ask me what killed George Floyd, I paraphrase Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s question: So when did this happen?

It happened before COVID-19, when 700 people in this country were dying every day from poverty, when 80 million people were either uninsured or underinsured – and for every 500,000 people uninsured, something like 2,100 people just die.

It happened when 4 million families couldn’t buy unleaded water, lived in proximity to chemical-spewing plants, making them pre-disposed to death by COVID-19. The virus was given power because of the wounds of racism and poverty combined with the government’s inadequate, negligent response.

And then came the watershed moment when the whole world saw the lynching of George Floyd from start to finish. Now we're in public mourning, a time that the prophets of Israel talked about as always coming after a long train of abuses. Eventually, somebody has got to say, like Jeremiah, “My head is a fountain of water so that I might cry on behalf of the nation.”

With public lamenting comes hope; without it, conscience is dead. It would mean that people had fundamentally given up on the possibility of humanity and the possibilities of the American experiment.

How can we harness the public lament, outrage, and anger in the wake of the inhumane murder of George Floyd?

I’m glad to see white, Black, and Brown people marching and mourning, but to hold a movement together and make it a mandate, we have to have an agenda and a mechanism.

The first step is the mass digital gathering on June 20 for The Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. We will be challenging five interlocking injustices: systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism.  

Dr. King said that if poor white people and poor Black and Brown people got together, they could fundamentally change this country politically. We went to Columbia University and asked , “What would happen if poor Blacks, poor whites, poor First Nation people, and poor Brown people were to register and vote?” And they told us that if 15 percent voted, it could fundamentally shift the politics and public policy of this country.

Our June event is about the agenda, about using data, about building power, about the mandate.

Some are going to try to use race to pit poor whites against poor Black and Brown and Native people. How is The Poor People's Campaign addressing this classic divide-and-conquer strategy?

Racism is a form of idolatry, of self-worship that is immoral and is fundamentally against humanity and democracy. What we do in the Poor People's Campaign is to help people make the connection between interlocking injustices that threaten everybody’s security.

When we organize in places like the mountains of Kentucky, where the population is about 99 percent white and conservative, we put a map up on a screen. The first is about racism, because I don't believe you can address any problem in America without dealing with this original sin, which caused the genocide of Native people.

But you can't stop there. You have to show how racism then connects to the other “isms.” So we put up a map that shows racist voter suppression. Then we put up a map of all the high-poverty states – high rates of white poverty, of child poverty, lack of health care, lack of a living wage, lack of unions, policies that hurt LGBTQ+ people and women. Invariably, some white person says, “Wait a minute. You mean to tell me that the same people that get elected through racist voter suppression are blocking my health care, my earning a living wage, my right to clean water?

And that's the point. That's what we want to see, because it leads to honest conversations about what's wrong and brings people together across racial, religious, ideological, and party lines. It’s about humanity coming together for the sake of the common good and recognizing that we all have a part in the abundance of God's blessings and God's earth.

What's the mandate for the day after the march?

We are going to release a legislative agenda and be massively engaged in registering people to vote. And we will hold those we elect accountable, meaning that they will use their position of power to actively oppose systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and militarism, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism.

Our mandate is to stay engaged. With one million people connected to our 43 coordinating committees, we expect to build power and keep this movement before the public.

To register for Poor People’s Campaign visit june2020.org or the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism partner page. You’re also invited to learn more about and join Every Voice, Every Vote: The Reform Movement’s 2020 Civic Engagement Campaign.

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