The Rev. William J. Barber II, 55, is a Protestant minister, social justice advocate and president of Repairers of the Breach, a nonprofit addressing moral and constitutional values. He lives in Goldsboro, N.C.
Last year you received the MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “genius grant.” Have you had time to reflect on what that means to you and your work?
Well, I was getting locked up the day I found out. I was getting locked up in Chicago, standing with workers who simply wanted $15 an hour in a country where 400 families, according to one statistic, make an average of $97,000 an hour. You know, if someone says that being able to help organize people into a moral fusion movement and help them understand that the same forces that are against voting rights are also against women’s rights, against immigrant rights, LGBT rights and against living wages, against union rights, against environmental justice — if those forces are cynical enough to be together, we ought to be smart enough to come together. And if somebody says that’s a form of genius, then, you know, I’m thankful. And we’ll just keep working.
You’ve been compared to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for your activism and focus on the poor. Is that comparison a badge or a burden?
Well, I don’t look at it as either. I believe what I was taught, that you should live your life committed to doing everything you can to serve the cause of justice, love and humanity. Number two, we should all learn from people of the past and emulate their good qualities. So I don’t see it as a burden or badge; I see it as a blessing to be able to learn from and hopefully be a part of a generation that reaches down in the blood of the martyr, picks up the baton and carry it the next mile of the way.
There are evangelical Christian preachers and leaders who adamantly support President Trump, and most of them are white. What faith do you share with them, [given] that you see this president so differently?
It’s interesting to me how a person can literally go in and pray for a president to be successful while that president and his enablers and his administration, at every turn, is preying on the very people that Jesus, the first evangelical, told us to be concerned about. The poor, the sick, the thirsty, the immigrant. In that sense, the Trump administration — I never say just Trump, because he’s not by himself — has violated everything that Jesus said ought to be the first priority of nations. That is, to care for the poor, care for the least of these. And so it grieves me that brothers and sisters who claim to follow Jesus would do this and would be so loud on things that Jesus is so quiet about and so quiet on the very thing Jesus is so loud about. And that’s why it must be challenged. It cannot be allowed to just exist and be called evangelicalism when many times it is a form of heresy.
Do you think your message is a threatening one?
No, I think it’s a liberating one. It’s not my message — it’s the message of our Constitution. It’s the message of our Bible. Most politicians put their hand on the Bible and swear themselves into office, and many don’t even know what’s in the Bible. There are 2,000 Scriptures in the Bible that say a nation should be concerned, first and foremost, for how it treats the poor, women, children and the stranger and the sick and the least among us. That’s not me. That’s the Scriptures. You know, in one of our national hymns it says, “America! America! God shed His grace on thee.” The second verse says, “America! America! God mend thine every flaw.” And down through the course of this American project we have always needed prophetic movements and prophetic voices that were willing to be critics of the state in order for the state to mend its flaws and to move closer to a more perfect union. And so if it is threatening, it should be threatening to those who want to promote injustice over justice.
Where do you find optimism?
Among the people that are rising up. We’re traveling now with the Poor People’s Campaign, a national call for moral revival. Three years ago, even before the Trump administration, we went all across this country to more than 30 states, invited by persons who said it’s time for us to have a moral fusion movement, to say that we can challenge these five interlocking injustices: systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, a war economy and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism. All over the country, from Appalachia to Alabama, from Mississippi to Maine, from California to the Carolinas, we found these pockets of people of every race, creed, color, sexual orientation that said it doesn’t have to be this way.
This interview has been edited and condensed.