The civil rights icon led a three-hour virtual march Saturday calling for reforms to the economy, criminal justice, and voting.
Do you have a sense that the culture wars of the Trump era, the COVID-19 pandemic and the mass uprising against police brutality represent a historical moment after which the United States will never be the same?
Culminating a three-hour live-stream program on Saturday morning, the Rev. Dr. William Barber invoked seismic changes of our past, like abolition and Reconstruction, women’s suffrage, the labor movement, Civil Rights and, of course, Martin Luther King Jr.’s original Poor People’s Campaign, to argue that this is such a moment.
“We’ve gathered to say, it’s time, America. It’s past time,” Barber said, capping off the Mass People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, orchestrated from the pulpit at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, with accompanying video from activists, scholars, celebrities, clergy and dozens of people suffering in poverty from all across the nation.
“Each of you must know that this might be the reason that you were born,” Barber said. “Now might be the moment when you are called into being. You have waited long for this moment. The ancestors have waited long for this moment. In this fateful hour, your time has finally come.”
No one who’s been following Barber’s rise to national prominence over the past decade will be surprised at the Poor People’s Moral Justice and Jubilee Platform that Barber unveiled on Saturday.
It’s comprehensive and intersectional, advocating on behalf of workers, women, Black and Native people, the sick, suppressed voters, prisoners and the cruelly punished, immigrants, schoolchildren, the homeless, debtors, victims of government violence and corporate pollution.
It paints a picture of government and corporate power-brokers arrayed with military might against the American people, and it tries to imagine a nation in which power serves the people and not the other way around.
‘I don’t see the difference between gerrymandering and the three-fifths compromise.’
Co-chaired by Barber and by Union Theological Seminary scholar the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, the new Poor People’s Campaign chose this as its mantra, repeated over and over again throughout the virtual march: “Somebody’s hurting our brothers and sisters, and it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t be silent anymore.”
A theme running through the People’s Assembly and its dozens of different speakers was that if America’s poor participated in the democratic process as enthusiastically and faithfully as did wealthier voters, that would change everything.
“Poor and low-wealth people hold the key to fully transforming the political calculus in this country,” Barber said.
The program included international celebrities like Jane Fonda, Danny Glover, Al Gore, Wanda Sykes and Bernice King, daughter of MLK. With all that star power, it was some of Barber’s fellow activists in North Carolina who helped to frame this state as a “poster child” for voter suppression.
Braxton Brewington, now a political organizer in Washington D.C., talked about his alma mater, Greensboro’s N.C. A&T University, and how Republican gerrymandering had split the campus of the nation’s largest public historically Black college, diluting Black students’ votes among surrounding predominately white Republicans.
“They did this to us intentionally because they know the power of our vote,” Brewington said. “I don’t see the difference between gerrymandering and the three-fifths compromise.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, a Durham pastor, author and long-time Barber ally, pointed out how dozens of states have enacted new voter-suppression laws since the Supreme Court in 2013 struck down parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“They wouldn’t be fighting us this hard if they didn’t know the power of our vote,” said Wilson-Hartgrove.
The courts eventually forced North Carolina’s Republican legislature to redraw the voting maps without racial bias, and N.C. A&T went back to sitting within the same district borders.
Fair district maps ought to be taken for granted. The Poor People’s Campaign wants a far vaster expansion of equitable voting practices. They start with asking Congress to reclaim federal authority under the Voting Rights Act to regulate changes to voting laws in states with histories of racist electoral management. After the Supreme Court decision in 2013, for example, North Carolina enacted photo ID requirements and cut back early voting, pre-registration options and same-day registration, all of which voting rights advocates had to take to the courts to overturn.
The campaign demands more permanent protections against gerrymandering; early registration for 17-year-olds preparing to vote; automatic registration for 18-year-olds as with the Selective Service; nationwide same-day voting, expanded early voting, mail-in ballots and online voting; suffrage for released felons; and making Election Day a national holiday to make voting easier for the working class.
Speaker after speaker talked about the people’s power to improve their collective lives if they exercise their rights to vote.
“You’ve got these MAGA hats running around saying, ‘Make America Great Again,’” said economist Julianne Malveaux, former president of Bennett College in Greensboro. “Well, for who? Poor America has always been in crisis. The way that capitalism works is that you have to exploit somebody in order for someone else to make money. We have accepted that, and we cannot. The 140 million people who are being exploited need to rise up.”
Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz said the COVID-19 crisis has only made things worse for America’s worst-paid workers like health aides and restaurant staff.
“We don’t want to pay the people who care for our elderly and our sick and our children, we don’t want to pay them a decent wage,” Stiglitz said. “We are a rich country with poor people, and it makes absolutely no sense. We don’t want to go back to the kind of economy we had in January or February 2020. We want to go to a new kind of economy.”
‘It isn’t about Democrat or Republican; that’s too puny. This is about life and about death. It’s time to choose life, America.’
Barber’s platform would benefit people across races and ethnicities, raising minimum wages to $15, guaranteeing a universal basic income, empowering workers to unionize, providing universal healthcare, debt relief, gun control, environmental protection and free public higher education.
“Seven hundred people die every single day of poverty and inequality in this the richest country in the world,” said Theoharis. “Hope comes from the bottom, from those most directly impacted by profound evil in America today. We know that bold, revolutionary, systemic change is only possible when we have a powerful movement to right these wrongs. Those in power today want nothing more than to stop this kind of movement.”
Zalonda Woods, a Greensboro mother of four who had been a homeless teenager after she aged out of foster care, said politicians divide poor people by blaming their moral choices for their socioeconomic status.
“Mass homelessness is a society’s collective moral failure,” Woods said.
Jamilla Allen, a young woman who works at Freddy’s Steakburgers in Durham, said Right-to-Work states like North Carolina keep people from organizing to improve their situation. The News & Observer previously posted a video of Allen talking about the risks she faces as a restaurant working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Freddy’s is a multimillion company, and I earn $8 an hour, and that is a poverty wage,” she said by video during the virtual assembly on Saturday. “Racism is used as a tool to divide workers. Poverty and racism are systemic problems that need systemic solutions.”
Barber believes America’s poor haven’t generally been dedicated voters because politicians don’t talk enough about issues that matter to them.
“We know it does not have to be this way. A new and better government can be instituted. You change the narrative by changing the narrators,” Barber said.
“Millions of people are crying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ For far too long our nation has refused to hear them. This isn’t about conservative vs. liberal. That’s too puny. It isn’t about Democrat or Republican; that’s too puny. This is about life and about death. It’s time to choose life, America.”