Why Rev. William Barber picked Charlotte to launch his campaign to save America’s soul

Rev. William Barber, center, led a 2015 march in Winston-Salem at the start of a federal voting rights trial challenging a 2013 state law. Barber is now set to co-lead the upcoming Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
Rev. William Barber, center, led a 2015 march in Winston-Salem at the start of a federal voting rights trial challenging a 2013 state law. Barber is now set to co-lead the upcoming Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. AP

As the architect of “Moral Mondays,” the interfaith movement in North Carolina that has become a national model for modern-day civil rights protests, the Rev. William Barber has been compared to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Now Barber is stepping down as president of the state NAACP to devote his time – and his booming preacher’s voice – to organize a nationwide follow-up to the Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, the push for economic justice that was organized by King and carried out after his assassination.

Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis will co-lead the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, set to play out over 40 days next May and June with protests in Washington and 25 state capitals – including Raleigh and Columbia. S.C.

The Observer recently caught up with Barber, who was in Charlotte to conduct the campaign’s first in a series of public events – mass meetings, training sessions, press conferences – to be held around the country.

In the interview, Barber spoke about Charlottesville, President Donald Trump, Franklin Graham, Charlotte’s poverty, and the upcoming Poor People’s Campaign.

His answers were edited for length and clarity.

On why he started a nationwide series of mass meetings and training sessions for the campaign’s organizers in Charlotte:

“The reason we chose Charlotte is because, while its skyline is exceedingly beautiful, there’s a lot of ugly poverty in this city. Charlotte may be (third in the nation) in banking, but it’s last in economic mobility.”

On the need for another Poor People’s Campaign:

“In this last election, when we had over 26 presidential debates, we had more conversations about tweets and emails (than about issues that matter). We didn’t have one hour of debate about systemic racism. Or voter suppression. We had no conversations about the poor. The word was hardly used. So we believe that 50 years after the Poor People’s Campaign (of 1968), it necessitates that we not have a commemoration, but that we have a re-engagement. We will have a movement, beginning next May, that will bring together a minimum of 25,000 people – 1,000 per state – that will engage and will organize and will work to build power among the poor.”

On what happened in Charlottesville and President Trump’s delay in singling out white supremacists for blame:

“We must challenge any political leadership – Republican or Democrat – that condemns the hate in Charlottesville while condoning the policy agenda that white nationalists promote. It’s a shame and a disgrace that it took Trump three days to condemn white nationalism. But (House Speaker Paul) Ryan, (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell and (Sen. Marco) Rubio don't get a pass because they said the right words. If they renounce the men who marched with torches shouting ‘no more immigration,’ then renounce the RAISE Act (limiting and changing the rules for immigration) and the Muslim ban.”

On what he’d say to evangelical clergy who have supported President Trump. After Charlottesville, several of them spoke out against bigotry, though some – including Franklin Graham – did not mention the neo-Nazis or the KKK by name:

“I would say the same to my fellow preachers: yes, we must call racists to repentance. But it's cheap grace and hypocrisy to both say you renounce racism and continue to defend the systemic racism that is anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-LGBTQ and anti-Muslim. Do what Jesus said: show fruit worthy of your repentance.”

On fellow North Carolinian Franklin Graham, a fellow preacher with very different views:

“Well, he’s my brother in the human family. I have actually met with him with a group of clergy. We challenged him for always castigating President Obama. I will say to you what one of my professors at Duke taught me: Whenever you claim that you’ve had an experience of being born again, changed, transformed by Christ and it does not produce a quarrel with the world – a quarrel with policies that exacerbate and create poverty, a quarrel with those who would see other human beings die for the lack of health care, a quarrel with systemic racism and injustice, a quarrel with those, in a land of immigrants, who want to deport and destroy the lives of immigrants, a quarrel with those who want to destroy, dismiss and label the LGBTQ community as something other than God’s creation – then my professor taught me and what I believe now is that it renders your claims of faith terribly suspect. Because you cannot find legitimate Scriptural support for that kind of narrow interpretation of morality. I chose not to denigrate Brother Graham, but I will challenge him to remember that Jesus’ first sermon began with good news to the poor. There’s no way to claim to be with Jesus and to not be with the poor.”

On what role Charlotte’s faith community should play to bring systemic change to the city almost a year after the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott:

“I think the faith community anywhere has a prophetic role to stand with, speak up with the poor, the marginalized, the stranger and to challenge injustice at the seats of power. We are not merely to be the chaplains of the society.”

On what we’ll see in Washington and in 25 state capitals during the first 40 days of the Poor People’s campaign in 2018:

“We will be having civil disobedience and direct action. It will happen simultaneously. The weeks (during the campaign) will be agenda-based. You will see people coming together at these capitals demanding that policy changes be made – poor people, activists, clergy. I sometimes call the folks who are organizing this the ‘MDPPA’ – Moral Defibrillator Poor People Activists. As Dr. King once said, you have to build ‘a moral army of love’ with people who have nothing to lose and everything to gain by standing up.”

On whether the campaign will be modeled on “Moral Mondays” in North Carolina:

“It may take some of that framework. We have moral mandates from the Scripture to challenge people in the seats of power – not just send an email or a text, but to put bodies on the line. And this time it won’t just be people advocating for the poor, but (poor) people advocating for themselves so they can’t be dismissed as just some nefarious group of folks.”

On whether some poor people will be living in tents – like at the original Poor People’s Campaign in Washington in 1968:

“Let’s just say there are pieces from the original campaign where, yes, there’s a need for poor people and advocates and moral leaders to camp out. There is a need for people to engage in civil disobedience. There’s a need for clergy in their vestments to walk hand-in-hand with poor mothers and poor children. There’s a need to break through this simple antagonistic partisan Republican vs. Democratic debate. This movement is not about saving any party. It’s about trying to save the soul of this nation.”

On whether his 2017 claim to be non-partisan clashes with his decision to speak at the 2016 Democratic National Convention:

“Oh, no. King went to the Democratic convention and challenged them. I don’t regret saying to the Democratic convention – and, more importantly, to the nation – that we have a heart problem in this country. Anybody who listened to that speech, I never gave some glowing endorsement. I gave them an analysis and called people to say, ‘We’ve got a heart problem.’ And, really, it was a call for people to look beyond that particular party or any particular candidate and come together. And I said that when certain things happen, I wouldn’t care if it was a Democrat or a Republican. When you castigate people simply because they’re Muslim – that’s not Democratic or Republican. That’s a deep moral malady and a heart problem. When you dismiss the poor or people’s need for health care, that’s a heart problem. We took this same moral agenda to the Republican National Convention. They almost arrested us.”

On how to measure the success of the new Poor People’s Campaign:

“Success is having a clear agenda that people can work on for many, many days and years to come. That we pick up the torch, that we not allow it to be put out. We have to be careful in our movement not to be forced into a sprint analogy. We have a marathon.”

On the comparisons many have made between him and Dr. King:

“I try not to get caught up in that. I think what we should all try to do is learn from Jesus, from the prophets, learn from all the leaders in the past and recognize how we should use our lives in the present to keep forwarding justice and forwarding love and forwarding dreams. It’s why I keep saying that, in this movement, there are a lot of people. We’re not the leaders, we’re the servants of the movement. And so if there’s something that Dr. King did that we’re trying to do or finish doing that he didn’t finish, then we do that. But we’re not trying to be named as anyone. We’re just trying to serve the cause of justice.”