It’s like listening to a song you used to know.
It’s an old sweet song, a hymn of hope and possibility. It’s a tune you haven’t heard in far too long.
That’s how it is when Rev. Dr. William Barber speaks morality. It’s not just that Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., and organizer – with Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis – of the new Poor People’s Campaign, is eloquent. No, it’s that he reminds you how rare it has become to hear morality framed as something large and all-encompassing, an obligation each of us owes all of us.
What passes for morality in the modern era is often shrunken and cramped, reduced to an obsessive concern over what happens in other people’s bedrooms. But morality isn’t small. Rather, it is the very large question of how we treat one another, care for one another, as passengers on this rock. And as Barber noted in March in a conference call with reporters, that’s a question this era is overdue to confront.
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“Every generation, whether it’s the abolition movement in the 1850s or it’s the woman’s suffrage movement in the late 1800s, early 1900s, or it’s the Bonus Marches that helped produce the New Deal in the 1930s, every generation has to stand up. There has to be a moral dissent and a moral critique in every, every, every generation. If there is injustice, if there is oppression, every generation has to pick it up. The success begins when you stand up and challenge it.”
The new Poor People’s Campaign (poorpeoplescampaign.org) will open Monday in 30 state capitals and continue for 40 days. Theoharis says it will involve “organizing, educating and power building, voter registration and mobilization” around “issues like voter suppression, issues like poverty and low wages, issues like the lack of health care, issues like the fact that more people die in this world from pollution than from any other cause.”
This campaign is a continuation of one Martin Luther King was working on when he was killed. In 2018 as in 1968, its challenge – and promise – lie in getting people to understand the intersectionality of their problems. Which is just a fancy word for helping a poor white farmer in Alabama see that she has more in common than in contention with a poor black janitor in South L.A. – and vice versa – so long as neither can afford to keep the car running or the refrigerator full.
“It has to be fusion,” says Barber. “It can’t just be in our individual silos. We can’t just have African Americans talking about systemic racism and white people talking about poverty. We need everybody engaged on these issues and understanding how they are interlocking injustices.”
The aim, he says, is to put a “face on the facts.” “Pat’s” face might do. In December, she told public radio’s “This American Life” how, after 44 years working at an Alabama chicken plant, she earns $11.95 an hour.
Critics will say we already had a War on Poverty, and poverty won. Barber doesn’t buy it. “We left the war on poverty, we did not lose the war on poverty.” He notes that we give “trillions of dollars of tax cuts to the wealthy but then put at risk every program that impacts the poor, refuse living wages, refuse health care in the wealthiest nation in the world.”
Monday, Barber and Theoharis will renew King’s last dream. Against the shriveled morality of the age, they issue a moral appeal that calls us to do better, to be better, all of us, together. It reminds you what it was once like to think you could grab the Zeitgeist by the throat and force it to change.
And it makes you wonder: how did we ever forget this song?