By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
It takes a village to raise a nation.
That’s not exactly how the old adage goes, but it’s speaking true for a national leader as he doubles down on his commitment to turning the tide for the country’s most vulnerable.
The Sacramento OBSERVER sat down with Rev. Dr. William Barber, founder of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and Repairers of the Breach, via Zoom last week as he sets his sights on a summer march on Washington.
Dr. Barber is preparing to gather thousands of like-minded souls on June 18 in D.C. On a national mobilization tour, Rev. Barber touched on everything from voting rights to the vestiges of the pandemic.
Dr. Barber points to the 140 million poor and low-wealth people in America, 43% of the U.S. population. For him, the way forward is clear and it starts with the Poor People’s Campaign’s 14-point agenda for healing the nation.
“We’re saying, if you want to close these breaches, America’s got to have passed living wages, at least $15. If you want to close these bridges, you’ve got to guarantee health care. You’ve got to make sure everybody has access and the right to affordable housing, and high-quality public education and a clean environment. You’ve got to be willing to reduce the war economy and put that money in a true war against poverty,” he shared.
America won’t withstand the strain much longer, he says, and the resulting social struggle won’t provide what the U.S. Constitution promises.
“We’re supposed to ensure domestic tranquility. You cannot ensure peace and domestic tranquility with this level of inequality that is unnecessary, and could be fixed with just a few passages of a few bills that also would benefit the society.”
Dr. Barber stresses that change will come when people claim their voting power and make lawmakers accountable for serving their interests.
“We must be a power because now poor and low wealth people make up 33% of the electorate and in battleground states, 45% of the electorate. If they come together and organize around an agenda…less than 25% of poor and low wealth people who have not voted, 25% of those, not 80% or 60%, but 25% of those who already registered, who have not voted, if they vote around an agenda that is for them, they could choose who sits in the presidency, governor’s office and in the Senate. The possibility to change the breach is in our hands.”
The ‘Moral’ Of The Story
White nationalists stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Black security officers testified that they were targeted with slurs and the threat of racially-specific violence. George Floyd, Trayvon Martin and Ahmad Arbery are household names and when they reach a certain age, little Black and brown children get “the talk” about “how to act” in interacting with law enforcement. A Black woman, Judge Kentanji Brown Jackson, seeks a seat on the Supreme Court, and as Dr. Barber says, gets called “everything but a child of God.”
The Supreme Court hearings were confirmation to many that race and racism are ingrained in the fabric of our lives. Dr. Barber has made mending that fabric his life’s work.
“Every generation has its Edmund Pettus Bridge, has its fight. We have to do our part,” he said.
“We’ve seen what happened before and we’ve overcome it before, and so will Judge Brown, but it can’t be just about an individual. We can’t just celebrate Judge Brown and not keep the fight for the full restoration of voting rights. And even Democrats, if they want us to accept one without the other, we have to say no, you can’t say ‘OK, well, we have a justice on the Supreme Court, so now it’s OK that we didn’t pass a living wage and we didn’t pass Build Back Better. No, you have to have a full agenda and as they used to say in the civil rights movement, what do we want? Freedom. How much do we want? All of it. “
We have to have an all of it mindset, Dr. Barber says.
“It’s not for the politicians to build a movement to demand all of it. It is for a moral movement to be made up of impacted people, religious leaders and advocates and that’s what we’re doing. You’ve got to build a campaign, not a day, not a convention, but a campaign that’s willing to be in the streets and in the suites and at the voting booths.”
The June 18 march is being billed as The Mass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers and Moral March on Washington and To The Polls. It’s a mouthful and purposefully so.
“For every fundamental shift in this nation, there was some social meeting, whether it was the abolitionists meeting in the 1850s, or the bonus marches in the 1830s, or the civil rights marches. they weren’t marches, they were campaigns, like the Birmingham campaign or the Selma campaign and none of them were singular issue things,” Dr. Barber shared.
“Dr. King was in Selma. He said not just to get voting rights for Black folk, but to change democracy and to fight against the goal of the Southern aristocracy, which was to keep the masses of poor Negro people and poor White people from coming together to form an economic power, a voting block that could change the economic architecture.
Sometimes we need to study our movements. Many times today and some of our civil rights groups are too mono focused on just one issue. They don’t connect the dots.”
Sacramento has an active coordinating committee that falls under the umbrella of the national organization. The Sacramento Poor People’s Campaign was formed in 2011, as part of the Occupy Sacramento Movement. Both were co-founded by activist Kevin Carter. The group later evolved into being a part of Dr. Barber’s movement. There are local and national parallels. Like Dr. Barber, Carter was arrested several times while standing up and speaking out. Dr. Barber is carrying on a cause inspired by civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Carter has helped host the King family when they’ve come to Sacramento in years past.
Started in December 2017, the California Poor People’s Campaign has eight coordinating committees throughout the state. The Sacramento Poor People’s Campaign has emerged as a champion for the city’s homeless population. It’s a reputation organizers like Faye Wilson Kennedy are proud of, but she says their work is even broader. Their focus also includes how environmental issues impact the city’s most vulnerable residents.
“Last September we hosted an event and our organization really made a push to make sure that that climate justice event was right there in Oak Park, in the middle of the hood,” Wilson Kennedy shared. “We also help people make the connection that poor people, particularly Black and brown people, are really impacted by environmental issues and climate issues.”
Wilson Kennedy joined the Poor People’s Campaign in memory of her deceased parents. The family moved to Sacramento from Mobile, Alabama decades ago, fleeing oppression in the deep rural South. She and others from the Sacramento Area Black Caucus group heard Dr. Barber speak locally in 2017, as part of the Moon Lecture Series at St. Mark’s United Methodist Church. She was impressed by what he had to say about the nation’s needy and the coalition of concern he was building across the county.
“He really appealed to their needs, (and stressed) that we’re not going to solve the problems without there being a multiracial group of people who are multi-age, multigenerational people from different backgrounds coming together, trying to solve problems,” Wilson Kennedy recalled.
Dr. Barber, she says, does a lot to motivate, and educate, campaign activists.
“He’s very charismatic and he has assembled a group of people around him, both volunteers as well as staff, to help us with the data and help us understand how to present the data. We’re not just left out there in the cold.”
Dr. Barber is anticipating the release of a new report that reveals COVID-19 data. The pandemic, he says, exposed the fissures of poverty and racism.
“The highest percentages of the deaths were among the very people we called service workers before COVID and essential workers after COVID. We made them go to work without healthcare, without protections and they became the first to get sick and the first to die,” he said.
Dr. Barber and Poor People’s Campaign co-chair Rev. Liz Theoharis will release their pandemic report at the National Press Club on April 4, the 54th anniversary of Dr. King’s assasination. The announcement, which Dr. Barber calls a “bombshell,” can be heard online at 10:00 a.m. EST.
“It’s going to rock the political world with how poor people were treated and how working poor people have been treated,” Dr. Barber said.
“(It) shows that the government hasn’t even tracked how pandemics really hurt the poor. If they had, it would show how even the way in which we dispersed services and protections was unequal. COVID isn’t prejudice, it isn’t discriminatory, but our response to it has been.”