“What we’ve seen over the last two years is not un-American, but a part of America’s history.”
Rev. William Barber, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign who started the “Moral Monday” movement in North Carolina in 2013, is just the person we need to hear from right now. In his speech at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia in 2016, he warned, “We have a heart problem in America.” Two years later, as President Trump separates migrant children from their families at the southern border and challenges our sense of who we are as a nation, Barber offers perspective and preaches vigilance.
“It’s not the first time a person got elected who lost the popular vote and then used their selection by the electoral college to roll back gains,” Barber told me in the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “That happened in 1877. And by 1883, the gains of the Reconstruction movement were overturned, [as was the] Civil Rights Act of 1875, and by 1896 we had Plessy v. Ferguson.” Barber also pointed to the 1912 election of Woodrow Wilson, who won the White House but failed to win more than 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race, and who screened “Birth of a Nation” in the executive mansion.
“A racist movie that told lies about black and white people working together [during] Reconstruction,” Barber said. Wilson “played that movie [at the White House] 100 years before [former Trump political director Stephen K.] Bannon was ever in the White House. So the first thing we gotta do for a minute is stop saying, ‘We’ve never seen this before’ and stop acting as though Trump is the first.”
Trump’s baby prisons, euphemistically called “tender age shelters,” were on his mind when Barber spoke. I wondered if a man as steeped in history as he was surprised by Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy. “It is the knowledge of history that always keeps me hopeful but skeptical,” Barber said. “I’m hopeful for what the possibility of this country is, but I can never be naive.”
After surveying our nation’s troubled history with African Americans, Native Americans, Japanese Americans and its ongoing problem with poverty, Barber explained why he could never be naive. “We have to recognize there is not this pristine past or pristine present, and somehow it has been disrupted by this pitiful reality of right now,” he said. “The reality is we are a schizophrenic nation.”
Barber was galled by Attorney General Jeff Sessions citing Romans 13 as justification for separating immigrant families. “Those who always claim to be Christian never bring up Jesus. That’s the first way you know it’s not right,” Barber told me. “They never say, ‘Jesus would be about this policy.’ They find some text to make a pretext that’s actually wrong.” He later added, “I’m offended that he would take the sacred text and try to use it to support an evil policy.”
The national heart problem Barber railed against at the DNC two years ago still vexes him. Barber was in Washington for the culmination of 40 days of direct action in 30 states. He was arrested during protests in front of the Supreme Court last month. “Something’s wrong when a politician wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I’m gonna work today to deny health care. I’m gonna work today to deny health care to children. I’m gonna work today to keep people with preexisting conditions from having access. I’m gonna work today to suppress the vote’,” Barber argued. “Something is wrong, much deeper than partisanism.” Part of the problem, Barber said, is that “for the last 40 years, we basically eradicated the word ‘poverty’ from political discourse while poverty is growing.”
Barber has tough words for congressional Republicans and the many “mean” things they have done. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) was singled out for his successful efforts that denied Merrick Garland a hearing when he was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama in 2016. “When you are stealing [a] Supreme Court seat, think about that,” Barber said. “McConnell, that’s mean. That’s a mean dude, man.”
Listen to the podcast to hear Barber take us to church with a compelling recitation of American history and the political dynamic today, especially the outsider role he plays compared with that played by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and his religious convictions in trying to keep this nation true to its ideals in the age of Trump. “We’ve gotta get to a moral outrage and engage in massive nonviolent civil disobedience and voter registration,” he said, “because we are in a moment where this is not normal politics.” At one point, Barber said he had doubts about his revived poor people’s campaign linking poverty and race. But the minister’s answer was reassuring.
“Part of faith is having doubt,” Barber said.
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