Into Coalition Building with Bishop Barber
Trymaine Lee: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." I'm sure you've probably heard that phrase but. These words, delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in August of 1967, are inspiring, even when that arc seems to be bending further away from justice, not closer to it.
On most days I'm skeptical. You know, I wanna have hope and I wanna have faith. But our world just doesn't bend on hope and faith alone. It takes work. Just before he died in 1968, Dr. King had begun the work of the Poor People's Campaign, a multiracial coalition fighting for federal funding for a guaranteed annual income, programs to end poverty, and housing for the poor.
Dr. King was assassinated before that work could be completed. But five decades later, the Reverend Dr. William II has taken up the mantle. Bishop Barber is the president of the nonprofit Repairers of the Breach. And he's co-chair of a new Poor People's Campaign, which he leads alongside the Reverent Drive. Liz Theoharis.
Rev. Dr. William J Barber Ii: A powerful new movement is rising across America, from the Mississippi Delta to the Apache Stronghold, from the homeless encampments of Washington to the coal fields of West Virginia. We are the 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this country, and we are building the Poor People's Campaign, a national call for moral revival.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. This weekend, on Saturday, June 20th, the Poor People's Campaign is hosting the mass Poor People's Assembly and Moral March on Washington. They're calling on political leaders to address the needs of poor and low-income people all across this country.
It's a virtual assembly that comes at a moment of great social and political energy. Ahead of the event I sat down with Bishop Barber to find out how the Poor People's Campaign is building a coalition of Americans fighting for economic justice more than 50 years after Dr. King first laid out his vision. The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, president of Repairers of the Breach, and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, sir, thank you for joining us.
Barber: Man, I'm glad to be with you on today.
Lee: You know, there are a lotta people who might not know that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was actually assassinated while he was engaging in a Poor People's Campaign, right, tryin' to go across the country and push for access to housing, an annual wage. How intentionally are you and your organization walking in that spirit of Dr. King?
Barber: Well, we're actually using two models. One of the models we use for organizing is moral fusion that comes actually out of Reconstruction, when black and white people after slavery got together to reconstruct the south and to rewrite constitutions and to implement policies that would address the post-effects of slavery.
And we believe there have been two reconstructions, one in the 1800s, one in the 1960s. And we're now in the midst of the birth pains of a third reconstruction. But yes, we're also looking at the model that Dr. King used when he decided to say these three things.
Number one, that racism, poverty, and militarism were the triune evils that were destroying the America society. And when he said racism, he meant it in all of its form: black people, native people, immigrants. But also when he said that America was the greatest purveyor of violence in the entire world because the country has never really wanted to deal with these three things.
In fact, people told him, "Stay over there and deal with civil rights. Don't deal with poverty. And you better not deal with war. You better not deal with militarism." So today we're saying there are five interlocking evils: systematic racism, systematic poverty, ecological devastation, denial of healthcare, the war economy, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism. And we are finding, just like Dr. King found, that there's a remnant of people of every race, creed, color, sexuality who say it's time that we address these issues not as silos, but together.
Lee: When you think back to 1968, a year of great tumult and fire and protest, and it feels like 2020 right now, it feels like, man, like, we're in the midst of that same kind of moment. How clear is that through-line, do you think, from the struggles of 1968, especially the way poor people were being impacted by policy, to what we're seein' now with COVID-19 and policing and everything that has been weighing on poor folks today?
Barber: Well, you know, actually you have to step back to '65. It was after the passage of the Voting Rights Act that opened up the possibility for black poor people and white poor people, particularly out in the south, to build what Dr. King called a New Coalition, to build a coalition that could bring into being the beloved community, in terms of public policy.
He said that on the steps of the-- Alabama Statehouse at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. He said, "Every time there is the possibility of black poor people and white poor people coming together the aristocracy, the greedy, the wealthy sewed division." He said, "They've been doin' it all along.
"It's what they did in the 1800s. It's what they're doing now." And remember riots broke out in '65, the Watts Riots and many of those riots. '68, what we saw in riots were-- many of those were after Dr. King's assassination, Bobby Kennedy's assassination.
But in '65 they actually started, right after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. So in some ways, we must understand what we see now as happening now but not beginning now. All of this kindling has been put on the fire. And now you have this match.
And the match is George Floyd, but it's more. The match is before COVID, 140 million people were poor and low-wealth. Then COVID happens. Then we have an inept response, a negligent response. And then we see a shooting by shotgun. We see a breaking in a house killing. Then we see a whole death from start to finish, in the lynching of George Floyd.
And what it did, when he said, "I can't breathe," it's like shorthand for what many people are experiencing in America. "I can't breathe because of all of these oppressive policies, policies that are connected to death." We are in a moment where people are having an existential shock because the government who's supposed to protect life, that's the first principle, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, has actually promoted death.
Lee: Bishop Barber, how do we then untether ourselves from the violence that has bound up this country from the beginning? How do we begin to untether ourselves from those original sins? I know you've dubbed this new Poor People's Campaign, "A national call for moral revival." Can we moralize our way out of this?
Has this country ever shown any willingness to really look itself in the face, look itself in the eye and say, "We are better than this"? Or are we just falling back on who we actually are (LAUGH), which is murderous and violent and, you know, policy that harms?
Barber: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Well, we can't without mass mobilization, moral mobilization. Remember we-- the history is we've always had alongside this lethal history the history of love and justice. And we have made progress. The problem is we can't act as though we ever quit.
The bible says, "Let justice roll." It doesn't say, "Let justice come to a certain place and stop." And we have to choose a way of nonviolent. But it must be revolutionary nonviolent. It's not just-- it's not cutesy. It's not pretty. That's why I don't like when politicians say, "If the protesters are just peaceful."
Peacefulness is not the opposite of violence. Nonviolence is the opposite of violent. If truth meets lies, it ain't gonna be that peaceful. (LAUGH) If injustice meets injustice, there's gonna be tension. You don't change things without tension.
You learn that in basic physics, right? So what we need is creative tension. We need justice tension. So this is the possibility of a third reconstruction. It's gonna be messy. But we have to do it. And we have to also do it by not retreating to our silos.
And then say, "We're not talking about now being left versus right, Democrat versus Republican. But we're gonna fight for life over death." And then finally, Trymaine, we have to do it in coalition. So therefore we need black folk and white folk and brown folk and red folk and gay folk and straight folk and trans folk and Jewish and Muslim and Christian and Sikh and humanitarian and people without faith but with a moral conscience and urban and rural to come together to see. That's the way we can create the fullness of this third reconstruction and I believe turn some things in a different direction.
Lee: You know, you're not new to this work at all by any means in North Carolina at the NAACP. And here you are again with the Poor People's Campaign. And I'm wondering, what exactly are the policy goals here? 'Cause it's not just about moralizing why we should change, but you're actually pushing for real policy.
Barber: Oh, yeah. In this movement, the Poor People's Campaign, what do we want? For instance, under racism we say we want to address voter registration, full restoration of the Voting Rights Act and expanding it. Under the issue of resegration of schools, we want fully funded public education and desegregated schools in a way that benefits everybody.
We want to see an end to mass incarceration. We want to see fair and just immigration policies. We want to see a really fair way and removing our First Nation people from under the laws that were put in place during the wars in the 1800s. And on poverty, for instance, we know right now that if we raise the living wage to $15 an hour, 39 million people would move out of low wealth.
If we raised it to a home wage, a home wage, that is you had enough money to own your own home, 83 million people would raise up out of poverty and low wage. We need a basic annual income. We need healthcare because 80 million people are uninsured or under-insured.
We're the only country in the world, that's of the 25th wealthiest, that attaches healthcare to your job and not to your body and not to your humanity. The policies we're puttin' forth are good for the whole society. Now they would be the right thing to do even if they weren't. But the fact of the matter is Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Peace Prize Economist, has said, "The cost of inequality is worse than the cost to fix it."
Lee: Wow. Speakin' of that, it's like movement building is about organizing ideas and platforms. But it's also about organizing people. And I wonder how, back in '68, the original Poor People's Campaign, how did they organize? And how are you organizing? Are you taking lessons from the past, in terms of organizing those poor black folks and poor white folks, which again, hasn't happened often in modern times.
Barber: So one of the things, Dr. King went to Appalachia and talked to white people in the coal mines and poor folks in the Delta. We've done the same thing. I've been in the hills of Kentucky. We've got white coal miners now organizing with black folk from the Delta.
We've got Apache native-- indigenous people organizin' with farm workers out of Kansas. Now what we're doing different is we said we were gonna be a permanently organized communities at the state level. 'Cause when we did our analysis, a lot of things that continue poverty happens at the state levels too.
States block healthcare. States cut education budget. States allow corporations in their states to have too much free course. So what we decided to do was be a coordinating committees with three chairs: a poor and impacted person, a religious leader, and an advocate.
And so now we have 45 of those across in 45 states. In addition to that, we now have 19 religious organizations, denominations join with this movement. We were able to bring significant number of unions in and 150 other grassroots organizations into this movement around addressing these five interlocking injustices.
But most importantly is the people. And that's the power. It's the fact that we have found out that if you register 15% of poor and low wealth people in this country around an agenda and they vote, they can fundamentally shift elections all over this country.
Lee: Up next, Bishop Barber and I dig deeper on the idea of coalition building and he breaks down how people are coming together today across racial and geographic divides to address class and economic inequality. That's after the break.
Lee: Bishop Barber, so many years after Dr. King's 1968 movement we've seen the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line actually increase.
Lee: With that backdrop, what are the actual challenges of organizing coalitions, especially black and white, right? Because sometimes it seemed like folks would be voting in a similar interest, but gettin' folks together is tough, especially along racial lines.
Barber: Well, it is to some degree, especially when people don't try and they assume that it can't be done. Why has it been hard? Because since Poor People's Campaign and Lyndon Baines Johnson's war on poverty that actually began in Harlan County, Kentucky, when's the last time you've heard a debate on poverty at the presidential level?
Lee: I haven't. (LAUGH)
Barber: When's the last time you've heard a debate on racism, on voter suppression--
Lee: I haven't.
Barber: That's the problem. Our politics have been trapped by a neoliberal imagination that says, on the one hand, "If you just deal with the middle class it'll fix everything," or on the other hand, you have extreme Social Darwinism connected to neoliberalism that says, "If you just take care at the top it'll trickle down."
Both of those imaginations are too anemic to deal with the reality of 43% of the people in America right now living in poverty and low wealth, $400 away from an economic disaster. Now society can't stand that for so long. And so what we have found is that if you go to people, as we have gone, I remember when we were told, "Don't go to Kentucky. Don't go to Harlan County. Don't go to Corbin, Kentucky.
"You can't do anything up there. Those people are racist. Those counties voted for Trump." When we went there we found out, first of all, yes, people that, many people that voted, voted for Trump. But a lot of them didn't even vote. Number two, we found out that people there felt like they were left out.
Number three, when we taught them the connections between systematic racism, voter suppression, and people gettin' elected who actually were hurtin' them, the irony is most people that get elected by racist voter suppression, when they get in office they vote on policies that hurt mostly poor white people in raw numbers.
People would say, "Well, we need to be together." And we actually saw three counties in Kentucky change from Trump to Democrat in this last governor's race. And the governor won. And the governor acknowledged on the night of his election. We never endorsed him.
But he said, "I was taught in this campaign that some things are not about left and right but about right and wrong." That's the language that we use. So it is tough, Trymaine. But what's the option? I was talking to a consultant one time and he says, "Well, the metrics tell us that poor people and-- poor black people and white people don't get together."
I said, "When have you taken your metric hind-parts into the field?" (LAUGH) Measurements, if Dr. King had followed the measurement he'd have never went to Selma. People said, "Selma was the wrong place, the wrong time. It was too deep in the south. It won't work. They're gonna kill you."
I'm not against metrics, 'cause we use 'em. But metrics can never determine our imagination. Either we have given up on human possibility and humanity and redemption or we've not. In our movement we've chosen not to give up. And we're seeing the results of it.
So it's hard. But there's somethin' worse. There's somethin' harder. And that's living in an unequal society. There's also a place, Trymaine, where I live in faith. My faith teaches me that one of the great sins is not trying and failing, it's never trying.
It's losing your belief. It's losing your hope. It's deciding and becoming apathetic. Because everything we celebrate today as progressive, 100 years ago we were told it would never be possible. Somebody has to get out of that, "It can never be done," and go to work.
Lee: Given the backdrop of what what you've been doing and we see recently with the Black Lives Matter Movement, you know, you turn the TV on and you see crowds that are either completely white, half-white, buncha white folks in a way that we just hadn't seen that, (LAUGH) you know, five years ago.
Barber: That's right.
Lee: What can you appreciate about this kinda upstart, Black Lives Matter movement and the coalition they're building? And how do what you're doing and what they've been able to do coalesce and come together?
Barber: Oh, we work together. Because, I mean, I'm in conversation with folk from Black Lives Matter. We work together. I love it. And I would say though this didn't just happen because of one person being murdered. There was a lotta organizing going on that was the kindling.
The spark may have happened. Just like Rosa Parks sat down, right? But there were people organizing in Montgomery long before she sat down. They put out 50,000 leaflets in Montgomery about the boycott the few days after Rosa Parks sat down. Ain't no way in the world they Xeroxed 50,000 people on them old, little Xerox machines like that in two days. (LAUGH)
Lee: Right, right.
Barber: Somebody did some organizing. Now they may not have told us, but somebody did some organizing to plan for things. My point is, history has told us it's always happened. And what I know about Black Lives Matter is they understand that police violence is a form of violence and a form of racism.
But we also need fundamental reconstruction of this society. I tell the folk in the Poor People's Campaign, Liz and I do, "I don't know if this campaign is going to fix most of the things or if this campaign is gonna start to fix or if this campaign is just gonna change the narrative and build power and then we move out of the way and some other folk take over.
"But I know it's gonna do somethin'. And I know in every age we have to do somethin'. And what we have to do is stop tryin' to find a silver bullet or tryin' to find a one thing. Don't worry about who gonna get the credit. Just keep workin' and declaring your nonviolent resistance to the violent ways of this society." And as the old folks said, "We'll understand it better by and by."
Lee: So before I let you go I definitely wanna talk about this Saturday. It's the culmination of a lotta work. Does it feel like you've arrived at this moment where you can exhale? Or is this the beginning (LAUGHTER) of something? Is there more work after this Saturday? So tell us about what's goin' on Saturday. And what happens after that?
Barber: Yeah. This is commencement and a commencing. So on Saturday we're gonna have a digital gathering. People by the thousands will be joining us online on more than 200 various outlets. And MSNBC is one of 'em and others that are allowing us to use your platform.
And, you know, it's gonna be powerful. It's gonna be heart-wrenching. But it will also be hopeful. And we got simple goals. Put a face on this issue so that no longer can poverty be racialized or run away from. Number two, change the narrative. In order to change the narrative you gotta change the narrators.
Somebody's been hurting our people. It's gone on far too long. And we will not be silent anymore, anymore. This is beginning, not an end. And then the third thing is to announce the agenda, what we're demanding, and saying to candidates, "You don't have to ask us to endorse you. Endorse this agenda and people will know."
We're gonna evaluate who's closest to this agenda, who's closest to-- we may not get everything, but who's closest. Who's really gonna lift up and deal with the fact of 143 million people living in poverty. And then the last thing is we're saying we're gonna be a power. We're gonna register people for the movement who vote and turn them out for the election but also turn them on after the election.
We want an agenda and we're gonna push. Because if America can't get this right in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of death, and in the midst of all this police violence, if we can't have a reconstruction and a turning now, God help us. God help us as a nation.
Time out. Time is out for moderation. I wanna quote a white man who was a friend of-- a deep historical friend of mine. I didn't know him, but he's a deep friend of mine. His name is William Lloyd Garrison. He was a friend of Frederick Douglass. And when somebody asked him, they said, "Look, you're white. Why don't you be moderate. If you're moderate we can work on this slavery. "We'll deal with it, but just be moderate." He said, "Go tell a woman whose child is burnin' in a house to be moderate. Don't ever come to me and tell me to be moderate when it comes to injustice"--
Barber: --"moderate when it comes to the ravages of slavery." I will be heard. And we will change this reality. This is the time to say enough. And we're calling people who believe that we can be better to come on in, join, and let's be better together.
Lee: Reverend Dr. Barber, as always, it's always an honor and a pleasure to speak with you. And I think if there's-- there are many takeaways, but one is that through the historic haze of violence there has been great love and compassion. And I know you're leading with a chest full of that. So sir, thank you very much for your time.
Barber: Thank you. Forward together, not one step back. Take care, my friend.
Lee: That was the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign. You can catch this weekend's mass Poor People's Assembly on MSNBC.com and on MSNBC's YouTube account. That's this Saturday, June 20th, from 10:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.
And before we go, the Supreme Court issued a decision earlier today on the future of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, stating that President Trump was wrong in terminating DACA. My colleague, Nicole Acevedo, digital reporter for NBC News, filled me in on the details.
Nicole Acevedo: The decision was written by Justice Roberts. It was a five to four decision. And even one of the quotes is that the move from the Trump administration was arbitrary and capricious, basically saying that they didn't bring enough evidence for them to argue that DACA was illegal in the first place.
It means that DACA remains as a program. It also means that the Trump administration, if they wanted to, could come back and argue again why they think the program should end. We know that the Trump administration, specifically Donald Trump, has run on a platform where he really puts immigration as a central issue. So he might continue to use this on an election year to move his base. But also, you know, a lot of public opinion polls side with the Dreamers. (PHONE)
Lee: Into America producer, Max Jacobs, called up Luis Cortes Romero to get his reaction. (PHONE)
Luis Cortes Romero: Hello?
Max Jacobs: Hi, Luis?
Jacobs: This is Max with NBC. (LAUGH)
Romero: Hey, how are you?
Lee: Romero was our guest on the podcast on Wednesday. (BACKGROUND VOICE) He's a DACA recipient and immigration attorney who was co-counsel on the case.
Romero: We've been waiting for a decision almost on a weekly basis since, like, early May. And it was always kinda-- so we, I honestly thought, like, maybe it was gonna get kicked down a little bit more. So when I saw that it came out, my heart dropped 'cause I think we were all just preparing for the worst. And so I'm trying to figure out what it's saying. (LAUGH) And then I realized that we won. And I just couldn't believe it. (LAUGH) But I'm feeling a lot better now than I did yesterday.
Lee: Luis told us the first people he called were his clients, the six DACA recipients who were named plaintiffs in the case. (SIGH)
Romero: There's a big weight lifted off my shoulders. And I feel that, at least for me and 800,000 other people, we're able to get a bit of a sigh of relief for a moment. You know, we're able to continue to see a future in one of the only places (TONE) we can call home. And so it feels good to continue to be welcomed.
Lee: To hear more of Luis' story check out Wednesday's episode of the podcast. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. Check your feeds tomorrow. We're bringing you a special conversation that I'm moderating to mark Juneteenth. And we'll catch ya next week on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday.