In a spectacle of religious hypocrisy last week, preachers who say so much about what God says so little — and so little about what God says so much — stood in the Rose Garden as a backdrop for President Donald Trump’s executive order on “religious liberty.” As they celebrated this administration’s willingness to let them use religious freedom as an excuse to force their “values” on someone else, Trump pointed to the legacy of the African-American church as an example of faith in public life.
In every con, there’s a grain of truth, whether the person who is speaking knows it or now.
I know the prophetic African American church tradition that grew up on the edges of plantations and spoke clearly for the first time into this nation’s public life when Hariet Tubman and Frederick Douglass first escaped from slavery to freedom. On my mother and father’s side of our family tree combined, I count more than eight hundred years of public ministry in that tradition. We do not know how to preach without engaging the powers in the public square. Whenever I open the Scriptures, I read about a God who hears the cry of the suffering and stands on the side of the oppressed for justice.
As I have prayed and read the Scriptures this year, I hear a resounding call to the very soul of this nation: We need a new Poor People’s Campaign for a Moral Revival in America.
In response to this deeply spiritual call, I announced last week that I am stepping down from leadership of the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP to respond to an invitation from impacted people, activists, and moral leaders across the nation to serve with them in leading a new Poor People’s Campaign. On Monday, May 15th at 10am Eastern, we are inviting members of the Resistance across the nation to join us by livestream for a press conference where we will outline plans for the campaign in 2017/18.
Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King called for a “revolution of values” in America, inviting people who had been divided to stand together against the “triplets of evil” — militarism, racism, and economic injustice — to insist that people need not die from poverty in the richest nation to ever exist. Poor people in communities across America — black, white, brown and Native — responded by building a Poor People’s Campaign that would demand a Marshall Plan for America’s poor.
This is the true legacy of religious freedom in America.
Dr. King, along with many other impacted people and moral leaders in the Poor People’s Campaign of 1967/68, began an effort to build a broad, fusion coalition that would audit America, demanding an accounting of promissory notes that had been returned marked “insufficient funds.” We have not finished their work. Though Trump’s presidency is the culmination of a violent backlash against the Second Reconstruction that Dr. King and many others led, the future of our democracy depends on us completing the work of a Third Reconstruction today.
This is why I hear the Spirit calling us to build a new Poor People’s Campaign.
The fights for racial and economic equality are as inseparable today as they were half a century ago. Make no mistake about it: We face a crisis in America. The twin forces of white supremacy and unchecked corporate greed have gained newfound power and influence, both in statehouses across this nation and at the highest levels of our federal government. Sixty-four million Americans make less than a living wage, while millions of children and adults continue to live without access to healthcare, even as extremist Republicans in Congress threaten to strip access away from millions more. As our social fabric is stretched thin by widening income inequality, politicians criminalize the poor, fan the flames of racism and xenophobia to divide the poor, and steal from the poor to give tax breaks to our richest neighbors and budget increases to a bloated military.
Americans across the country are crying out in defiance — and for change. Bringing this cry into the public square, a Resistance has emerged: The Fight for $15, the Movement for Black Lives, Moral Mondays, the Women’s March, The People’s Climate March and No Ban/No Wall protesters have taken to the streets. We are, indeed, The Majority, crying out against the hijacking of democracy by the richest cabinet in U.S. history and a Congressional leadership that does its bidding.
At such a time as this, we need a new Poor People’s Campaign for Moral Revival to help us become the nation we’ve not yet been. I don’t just know this because the river of resistance in my tradition echoes its truth down through the centuries. I know it because I have seen it in North Carolina.
Four years ago, when extremist forces took over all three branches of government in my home state, people cried out in resistance. “Moral Mondays” protests drew tens of thousands to our state house in 2013 and inspired the largest state-government-focused civil disobedience campaign in U.S. history. Through sustained moral fusion organizing, we were able to push back against extremism for four long years; to see political change in the defeat of an extremist Republican governor, the election of a progressive majority to our state Supreme Court, a federal court order for special elections to address racial gerrymandering in state legislature districts, and the overturning of a monster voter suppression law that targeted African-Americans, according to a federal court, “with almost surgical precision.”
What began with an outcry in North Carolina became a sustained movement for political change through moral, fusion organizing, led by poor and impacted people. Throughout America’s history — from abolition, to women’s suffrage, to labor and civil rights — real social change has come when impacted people have joined hands with allies of good will to stand together against injustice. These movements did not simply stand against partisan foes. They stood for the deep moral center of our Constitutional and faith traditions. Those deep wells sustained poor and impacted people who knew in their bones both that power concedes nothing without a fight and that, in the end, love is the greatest power to sustain a fight for what is right.
This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness a deep moral analysis that is rooted in an agenda to combat systemic poverty and racism, war mongering, economic injustice, voter suppression, and other attacks on the most vulnerable. We need a long term, sustained movement led by the people who are directly impacted by extremism.
I am grateful for my sister, Dr. Liz Theoharis, and many friends at the Kairos Center who have laid the foundation for this campaign over the past decade. Much like Septima Clark and the Highlander Center’s Citizenship Schools in the 1950s and 60s, they have identified and connected grassroots leaders across the nation who are ready to join hands with new allies for sustained direct action that can fundamentally shift the narrative about who we are and who we want to be in this land.
To share this story about the America that can and shall be, I am joining my brother, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, and others to produce “The Gathering: A Time for Reflection, Revival and Resistance,” a monthly program, beginning June 4th, 2017, that will bring together Movement music, interviews with impacted people in the Poor People’s Campaign, a timely sermon for the public square and an “altar call” to action as we continue to build this movement. We hope you’ll join us and invite others to come along as we commit to go forward together, not one step back!
Rev. Barber is chief architect of Moral Mondays, founder of Repairers of the Breach, and author of The Third Reconstruction (Beacon Press).