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Rev. William Barber, leader of revived Poor People's Campaign, reflects on MLK's legacy

Rev. William Barber prefers not to call Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday.

For Barber, who's Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival draws its name from a movement started by King shortly before his assassination, the day of remembrance is not so much about commemorating the person but instead about continuing his work.

"What we should do is go to the place they fell, reach down in the blood, pick up the baton and carry it to the next mile," Barber said.

President of the North Carolina-based nonprofit Repairers of the Breach and architect of the Moral Monday Movement, Barber is one of the most widely known civil rights champions of the 21st century. His activism has garnered national attention, including the Moral Monday movement years ago where he led civil rights protests in North Carolina.

In an age where the faith community is split over hot-button issues like immigration, gay marriage, abortion and race, the widely known evangelical minister is leading a renewed effort to shift America's focus toward fighting poverty and uniting poor people of different backgrounds, something King had been striving to do in his final moments.

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Members of the community march down Rivers Avenue toward Cherokee Place Untied Methodist Church with the Poor People's Campaign Monday Jan. 13, 2020, in North Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Days before the King's birthday, Barber visited North Charleston, an area populated by a number of low-income communities, for a Poor People's Campaign march and mass meeting. The meeting at Cherokee Place United Methodist Church welcomed dozens of residents, clergy and activists gathered to denounce systemic racism and poverty.

Barber spoke with The Post and Courier before the meeting, reflecting on King's legacy and exploring themes of race, religion, poverty and politics.

It was November 1967 when King announced his Poor People's Campaign at a staff retreat for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. 

There, King planned for an initial group of 2,000 poor people to descend on Washington, D.C., southern states and northern cities to meet with government officials to demand jobs, unemployment insurance, a fair minimum wage and education for poor adults and children.

The idea had been sparked in conversations with a variety of people, including Cesar Chavez, a Latino American civil rights leader, the National Welfare Rights Organization and whites from Appalachia, Barber said.

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Members of the community march down Rivers Avenue toward Cherokee Place Untied Methodist Church with the Poor People's Campaign Monday Jan. 13, 2020, in North Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

Connecting the issues of racism, militarism and poverty didn't fare well for King's popularity, Barber noted, but King knew the potential impact of the movement.

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"He knew that historically, particularly in the South, there’s always been this effort to split poor whites and poor blacks because they represent a political power base that can fundamentally change the country," Barber said.

That effort, known as Southern Strategy, dates back to the late '60s when Republicans appealed to racism against blacks to increase political support among white voters in the South.

While faith leaders aren't called to support political parties, they should endorse policy positions that align with Jesus and the prophets, Barber said.

“Jesus was clear. To follow Jesus is to be concerned about how we care for the hungry, the sick, the poor, the immigrant, the children and those who are despised.”

After King was killed, the attention on the poor seemingly subsided. But Barber's campaign aims to "resurrect the prophetic voice" and place attention on the millions of low-income people in America.

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Traffic is held to stop as members of the community march across Rivers Avenue toward Cherokee Place Untied Methodist Church with the Poor People's Campaign Monday Jan. 13, 2020, in North Charleston. Gavin McIntyre/Staff

The campaign, also led by the Rev. Liz Theoharis, director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, is on a nationwide tour leading to its June Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington, where thousands are expected to gather in the nation’s capital to call on people to participate in moral civic engagement and voting “that cares about poor and low-wealth people, the sick, immigrants, workers, the environment, and peace over war.”

Organizers aren't just making speeches though, Barber said. They're registering people to vote in hopes to increase turnout in this year's elections.

The effort seems to have momentum. In 2018, the campaign welcomed 30,000 to Washington, D.C., to be founding members and the movement has organizing committees in 43 states committed to placing more attention on the 140 million Americans who are poor and of low wealth.

"We say it's constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible and economically insane to think you can just write off 43 percent of your people," Barber said. "Dr. King would be saying that. The welfare rights workers are still saying it.”

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Reach Rickey Dennis at 937-4886. Follow him on Twitter @RCDJunior.

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