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Picking up King’s Legacy: Reverend William Barber and the Launching of a New Poor People’s Campaign

By Jeanne Theoharis

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II. Photo credits: Rev. Liz Theoharis

This article appeared originally on the National Civil Rights History blog.

The air was hot and sticky. Surrounded by clergy, Rev. William Barber lambasted the voter suppression that had compromised the 2016 presidential election. “Long before Russia hacked our election, our government was hacked by racism.” Since Barack Obama’s election in 2008 and the Supreme Court’s 2013 stripping of the Voting Rights Act, Barber explained, twenty-two states had passed new laws making it harder for people, particularly people of color, to vote.

But Barber, who’d helped galvanize North Carolina's Moral Monday movement, wasn’t in Alabama or the Tar Heel state. He was in New York City, standing on the steps of City Hall, flanked by Manhattan borough president Gale Brewer and Reverend Liz Theoharis, co-chair with him of the new Poor People’s Campaign and co-director of the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary. Barber was taking the fight to the Big Apple, stressing the links between voter suppression, low minimum wages, lack of Medicaid expansion and high rates of poverty—and emphasizing the ways New York also limited access to voting with no early voting, no same day registration, and no open primaries. Voting rights were not just a southern issue but a national one. From City Hall, they headed to the United Nations to meet with the High Commissioner for Human Rights. They wanted to expose US voter suppression to the world and the racial and economic injustice it furthered.

Highlighting the unlikely and uncomfortable, Rev. William Barber has long refused the ways people silo political issues, separating voting rights from economic issues from immigration, North from South, black from white from Latino, gay rights from the social safety net. Building an intersectional movement is his driving vision. At a time when political pundits often treat race and class as mutually exclusive political categories, Barber knew they were inseparable.

Now he was going bigger—joining forces to build a national Poor People’s movement on the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s call for a Poor People’s Campaign and assassination. On April 4, 2017, Reverends Barber and Theoharis stood on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel where King had been assassinated forty-nine years earlier to launch this year of action. Demanding we “stop basking in our commemorations,” Barber insisted on action—calling for a “recommitment” to the movement’s unfinished work. A few weeks later, he announced he would be stepping down from the leadership of the North Carolina NAACP to co-chair the new PPC. (“Don’t forget to talk about your sister Liz,” he instructs me, “and how we’re co-chairing it and complement each other—she’s a woman, I’m a man, she’s white, I’m black, she’s in the North, I’m in the South.”) And then on December 4, fifty years after Martin Luther King had called for a Poor People’s Campaign, Reverends Barber and Theoharis formally announced a new PPC from the Capitol, rebuking the current tax cut bill as immoral, unjust and an affront to Christian values.

The Poor People’s Campaign:

The idea for a Poor People’s Campaign began with a 1966 visit Martin Luther King made to a Marks, Mississippi Head Start center where he uncharacteristically broke into tears. Four kids eagerly sat there looking forward to a lunch that consisted of nothing more than a quarter of an apple. “I can’t get those children out of my mind,” King told SCLC activist Ralph Abernathy. “I don’t think people really know that little school children are slowly starving in the United States of America.” The idea germinated. The nation had developed ways to ignore and hide the impacts of poverty—and part of their aim would be to force the country to “see the poor” and compel Congress to act.

In December 1967, King announced the Poor People’s Campaign, zeroing in on the federal government’s “primary responsibility for low minimum wages, for a degrading system of inadequate welfare, for subsidies to the rich and unemployment and underemployment of the poor.” A multi-racial group of poor people from across the nation would descend on the Capitol and stay until their needs were addressed by Congress and the President. Their demands were clear: “$30 billion annual appropriation for a real war on poverty; Congressional passage of full employment and guaranteed income legislation [a guaranteed annual wage]; and Construction of 500,000 low-cost housing units per year.” As King observed, “It didn’t cost the nation one penny to integrate lunch counters, but now we are dealing with issues that cannot be solved without the nation spending billions of dollars and undergoing a radical redistribution of economic power.” The PPC’s first gathering took place in Atlanta in March 1968, bringing over fifty organizations representing poor African Americans, white, Latinos and Native Americans together to build the campaign.

When King was assassinated in April 1968, the mobilization did not stop. On May 12, 1968, organizers broke ground in DC, setting up a tent city of plywood shanties on the Mall named Resurrection City. Nine caravans of poor people of all races began making their way from across the country to DC. The most visible Black caravan with 100 people and seventeen mule-drawn wagons started out from Marks, Mississippi, the poorest county in the country. Launching a caravan from Memphis, Coretta Scott King declared her own dream “where not some but all of God’s children have food, where not some but all of God’s children have decent housing, where not some but all of God’s children have a guaranteed annual income in keeping with the principles of liberty and grace.” Caravans of Native Americans and Latinos traveled thousands of miles to DC. 

The highpoint of the campaign came on June 19, Solidarity Day. Some 50,000-100,000 gathered to hear Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks, and others address the crowd on the need to fight racism, poverty, and war. Key to the PPC’s vision was that people had the right to social assistance—a resounding moral challenge to the prevailing idea that people caused their own poverty. Despite its well-defined demands for full employment, a guaranteed annual income, and the construction of more affordable housing, the Poor People’s Campaign was criticized by many in Congress and the media as ‘unruly’ and needing ‘clarity.’ Resurrection City was torn down by police on June 24, 1968.

Activists at the Poverty Initiative and Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary had been building the groundwork for a new Poor People’s Campaign for a number of years—stitching together a coalition of parents from Flint, Fight for $15 workers, young activists in Ferguson, coal miners in West Virginia, farm workers in Immokalee, welfare rights activists and water warriors in Detroit and the Gulf Coast, homeless activists and cultural artists from New York to California, and others committed to transformative social change. With poor people as leaders and organizers, this meant addressing police brutality, restoring the social safety net, attacking environmental racism, paying living wages, fighting for immigrant rights, and making affordable housing, food, and health care available for all. 

The synergy between what Kairos was doing and Barber’s vision culminated in a Moral Revival tour in fall 2016 and the call for a new PPC. “There is a refusal to see and hear what is really happening to the poor,” Barber observed. “In twenty-six hours of presidential debates there was not one hour on poverty. Not one hour on voting rights. Not even fifteen minutes.” In fall 2017, Barber, Theoharis, and their crew of anti-poverty crusaders began to criss-cross the country from Tempe to Kansas City to Lexington to Los Angeles, making connections with local organizations, holding mass meetings and building movement capacity for forty days of action in the spring. One key difference from 1968 was they were targeting not just Congress but also state legislatures as part of the problem.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II and Rev. Liz Theoharis
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II and Rev. Liz Theoharis

A Life of Struggle 

Born to political parents who moved back to North Carolina to desegregate the schools, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II has pastored Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina for nearly twenty-five years. Shortly after Barber arrived at Greenleaf, he was afflicted with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis so severe it fused his bones/spine in place. He was told he would never walk again—which after years he did. But he cannot sit on a regular chair—only a tall stool—and the pain is so great he often holds meetings with advisors lying flat on his hotel bed to alleviate some of the discomfort. Like disabled freedom fighter Harriet Tubman (who had fainting spells from a severe childhood injury), Barber’s disability comes with him in everything he does, making it hard to walk, travel, march, stand, sit, and endure long meetings. But like Tubman, Barber is relentless and undeterred, clear that his work is only possible because of the assistance of comrades and family and because he has good health coverage (which he insists must be available for all). Barber talks about the need to “own our brokenness,” as individuals and as a nation. “You can’t fix it when you don’t own it.”

Harvard University Professor Cornel West has described Barber as “the closest person we have to Martin Luther King Jr. in our midst.” News outlets routinely quote this—but the comparison demands far more than it seems on the face of it: to take seriously the substance of who King actually was, rather than the ever-dreaming caricature he has been turned into. Barber’s prophetic voice, like King’s, weaves together a critique of the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism”—seeing racism not as a problem of the South but of the nation, intertwined with economic exploitation and war making. Like King, Barber is a scholar and a minister who spends much of his time on the road, weaving together a broader national struggle for racial, economic and social justice, adamant his religious calling necessitates making justice in the world.

The similarities to King are not always easy ones—exhausting schedules, dizzying travel, death threats, numerous arrests, scores of people sharing devastating oppression that weigh on the spirit, a religious calling which necessitates critiquing allies and fellow Christians for their own roles in maintaining oppression. Like King, Barber understands that the fight for racial and social justice at home is indivisible from the fight for human rights and against US militarism and Islamophobia at home and abroad.

He worries about the tendency to fetishize individual leaders, describing how they are “building this movement of people of the poor, not with the poor so even if something happens to one of us, it does not undermine the movement.” And he laments our tendencies to “love the tombs of the prophets” but refuse to take up their work.

“Jesus was a Poor Man”

The night the Senate was trying to pass the ‘skinny repeal,’ Barber was in DC out on the lawn with protesters. They had brought caskets to highlight the deaths the repeal would cause but were told by Capitol police they had to remove them. Proceeding inside to the Senate gallery and wearing a religious stole that read “Jesus was a poor man,” Barber was instructed to take it off if he wanted to enter.

“This is a fact,” Barber recounted telling the guard. “Jesus was a poor man.” To Barber this was emblematic—“if it’s too graphic or too pointed, the forces that be have given directives that it should not be seen.” And so, just as fifty years ago, “we must see what our society has refused to see.”


About the Author 

Jeanne TheoharisJeanne Theoharis is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College of CUNY and the author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks. Her forthcoming book, A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History, will be released by Beacon Press in January 2018. Follow her on Twitter at @JeanneTheoharis and visit the Rosa Parks biography website.