“There’s no way we can inspire people to move with the normal politics that doesn’t fully address poverty. When you can work a full-time job at minimum wage and still not be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in this country, that’s poor. And if we can’t see that and if we don’t acknowledge that poverty then we are refusing to call upon these witnesses among us.” — Rev. Dr. William Barber II, co-chair, The Poor People’s Campaign
In the richest country in the world, 140 million people struggle with poverty and low wealth.
Over the past 50 years, the U.S. economy has grown 18-fold. Yet wealth inequality has exploded. The top 1 percent’s share of the economy has nearly doubled, to more than 20 percent of our national income.
In 2017, the 400 wealthiest Americans owned more wealth than more than two-thirds of the entire U.S. population, and three individuals possessed a combined wealth equal to the wealth of 50 percent of the country.
The Poor People’s Campaign, led by the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, is a national call for a moral revival. It is a continuation of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was just beginning to build the campaign when he was assassinated in 1968.
On June 20, the campaign will lead the Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, a “generationally transformative” gathering to demand that both major political parties address the “interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.”
At the National Urban League’s 2017 Conference in St. Louis, Rev. Barber delivered a powerful and inspirational message of justice, drawing parallels between Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and modern political figures.
“They were former slaves, and he was oppressing them in this historical moment because they were growing in power and influence and he saw this as the last chance to stop a growing diversity,” Barber said of the Hebrew people. “He wanted to control their influence. He wanted to control their wealth. He wanted to control their faith. He even wanted to control their health.”
He suggested that the nation is in a third reconstruction.
“The first reconstruction was from 1868-1880. The second reconstruction was from 1954-1968 , when Black and brown and white people came together — particularly in the South,” he said. “And when we broke through the Southern Strategy and elected President Obama, that represented the possibility of a third reconstruction. What we see happening is a Nebuchadnezzar spirit that is trying to block the transformation of America. Nebuchadnezzar might be dead, but the spirit — that narcissistic stuff still lives.”
That “Nebuchadnezzar spirit,” he said, is evident in the massive voter suppression effort that has swept the nation since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
In addition to the Poor People’s Campaign, Rev. Barber is president of the faith-based social justice organization Repairers of the Breach, bishop with the College of Affirming Bishops and Faith Leaders, visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in Goldsboro, North Carolina.
He came to national attention in 2015 when, as president of the North Carolina NAACP, he organized weekly protests at the State Legislative Building that were known as “Moral Mondays.”
“Some ask the question, why don’t they be quiet?” Barber wrote of the Moral Mondays protests. “Well, I must remind you, that it has been our collective silence that has quietly opened the city gates to these undemocratic violators of our rights. If we must pray forgiveness for anything today, it will be the silence with which we have allowed this to happen in the dark. Thoreau said in his famous essay, ‘Civil Disobedience,’ that if he had to repent of anything, it would be his good behavior. What possessed me, he asked himself, that I behaved so well in the face of such evil?
“As people of faith, we understand that we have been called to be the voice of the voiceless and the shepherd of God’s beloved community,” he said. “What we do here today is only what any responsible shepherd does to alert God’s flock to the presence of the predators of democracy.”
The Urban League Movement is proud to support the Poor People’s Campaign and count ourselves as allies of Rev. Barber. We look forward to the Assembly and March in June.
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.