The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II Calls on Graduating Students to “Get Up, Get Together, and Get Involved Tomorrow”
When graduating in fraught times of division and fear, it’s not always easy to look to the future. Especially when mulling over how we got here and where we go from here while planning for the next stage in your life. Thankfully, we have a beacon of hope and action to look to: cochair of the Poor People’s Campaign and MacArthur fellow Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, II. On Saturday, May 18, Rev. Barber delivered a mesmerizing commencement speech at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts. Not a smartphone in the students’ hands lit up while he inspired the next generation to step forward in our times of moral crisis for love, justice, and truth. A true testament to the power of his words, words that all of us should heed, no matter what stage of life we are at.
Here are some selections from his speech.
I have come today to issue both a caution and a call. And it is that you must graduate today, but get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
There are some that want to promote the lie that all is OK. But as Chancellor Jonathan Bennett, or Chance the Rapper, says, “Sometimes the truth don’t rhyme. Sometimes the lies get millions of views.”
And, in this moment, you have to question the Trumpalistic slogans we hear about bull markets and booming economies. Yes, that’s the message from the White House and from Wall Street. We do live in a time when some people who put their names in gold plating on new buildings like to talk big talk. They collude with lies and obstruct the truth and say everything is fine when it is not.
Many others engage in inattention violence and refuse to even look at the realities around us. And others see the problems, but just throw up their hands and say ‘nothing can be done.’
The truth is life is hard for most folks in America, and something must be done. For many of you here, you are only the first or the second generation in your family to even go to college. And no matter how you look on the outside, it was hard to get here, hard to stay here, and it’s hard out here, and in many places, it’s getting harder.
And that’s why John Legend, my friend—as we talked not too long ago—said in his latest song, ‘Preach’:
“I can’t sit and hope, I can’t just sit and pray,
that I can find a love, when all I see is pain.
I try to do the things, I say that I believe.
I can’t just preach, baby, can’t just preach, can’t just preach.
Falling to my knees, I can’t just preach.”
I must do something.
I have been traveling all over this land for the past two years organizing people for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. And I want to invite each one of you to join it, to Google it, to be a part of it.
When a president loses the election by 4 million votes but is selected president by an Electoral College that is a relic of racism and slavery, and 100 million people chose not even to vote in 2016, you must graduate today, but then get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
When mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow, when too often shooting unarmed black people goes unpunished, when indigenous people on reservations face cruel decisions to frack and drill on their sacred land, we need you to graduate today and then get up, and get together and get involved tomorrow.
When a country of immigrants is weaponizing deportation to rip families apart and reject people, brown immigrants at our southern borders have had families snatched, and mothers and children put in cages. When just last week I visited sister Rosa Gonzalez, who in Maryland was separated from her family, she’s in sanctuary now because of the president’s policies that want to deport her, leaving her three children, one with Down Syndrome, despite the fact that she came here to get away from violence that was created in El Salvador by United States paramilitary policies. People were trying to kill her with machetes. And when you have people in office now trying to put immigration policies in place, and if they were in place when their great-grandmas tried to come here, they wouldn’t be able to get into this country, you must graduate, get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
And when some people still feel that they have a right to hate and then discriminate against people because of their sexual orientation and who they choose to love, you must graduate today, get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
When some say our economy is good and the unemployment is down to 3 percent, but they don’t tell you that most of those jobs are low-wage jobs and part-time jobs. When there are right now, as you sit here today, 140 million people in this country that are poor and low wealth, 43.5 percent of this nation. When there are 400 families that make an average of $97,000 an hour while we lock people up who go in the street for $15 and a union. When plus-60 million people work for less than a living wage, less than $15 and a union, and 250,000 people die every year from poverty, yes, I want you to graduate today, but I want you to get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
When 37 million people go without health care, and people pray not to get sick because they can’t afford treatment, and when politicians try to block people from getting health care when those same politicians, when they get elected to Congress, get free health care paid for by our money. When two weeks ago the current administration had a prayer day, and on that same day, members of that administration were preying—p-r-e-y-i-n-g—and trying to roll back the policies that protect people with pre-existing conditions and protect pregnant women, you must graduate today, but you must get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
When we see the hypocrisy of an Alabama state governor who has refused to expand health care, who is against health insurance companies having to cover pre-existing conditions and pregnant women, who is against living wages, even though thousands of people die every year from poverty, who is for sinful voter suppression laws and now says she’s signing a law because she cares about life and morality and signed a so-called ‘heartbeat’ bill to take away a woman’s right to choose, when the reality is, shamefully, she is claiming to care about a heartbeat inside the womb, but doesn’t care about heartbeats outside the womb.
When families, Mr. President, in Flint, Michigan, to . . . Louisiana, and all over this country, people can get up every morning and buy unleaded gas but can’t buy unleaded war. When a war economy drains social programs and impoverished communities here at home to destroy and pollute poor countries around the world. When a combat soldier makes less than $35,000 a year and a weapons company CEO makes $19 million a year as an average, and people are making a killing off a killing. When we are putting that 62 cents of every discretionary dollar into the war economy, but only 15 cents of every discretionary dollar into education and health care and infrastructure at home, you must graduate today, get up, get together and get involved.
When we have a false narrative that says God blesses those who are cursing the poor and defending racism and wage and senseless wars and hating Muslims and gay people and destroying the Earth and loving tax cuts and guns, this is such a lie that you must graduate today, but then get up, get together and get involved tomorrow.
We need you. America needs you. The world needs you on the front lines for love and justice and truth. Class of 2019, you are graduating during a moral crisis in America. And I must tell you the truth, but I must also say you are not the first. Truth is, it has always been young people who have stepped forward at moments of crisis in this nation’s history to offer the leadership that can push us toward a more perfect union.
You can read Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II’s commencement speech in full here or watch him deliver it here.
To find out about how he helped build the Moral Mondays movement, read his book The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear, written with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. To learn about his vision for intersectional organizing in the new Poor People’s Campaign, read Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing, written with the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and the Rev. Dr. Rick Lowery. And read and watch his MacArthur Foundation profile, prepared in honor of his induction in the 2018 Fellows Program.
About The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, II
The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II is the president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, cochair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. A visiting professor of public theology and activism, Rev. Dr. Barber is also the author of The Third Reconstruction and Revive Us Again. Follow him on Twitter at @RevDrBarber.