Bishop William J. Barber II: ‘We cannot honor Dr. King without listening to the people who are crying out for freedom today’

OPINION: To celebrate King’s legacy, Bishop Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign are mobilizing the largest mass assembly of poor people and low-wage workers in this nation’s history on June 18, 2022.

In his last speech in Memphis, Tennessee, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. placed the movement in a world-historical context, celebrating that he had been allowed, in his own time, to help echo that age-old message of people who have said, “We simply want to be free.”

We cannot remember and honor Dr. King without listening to the people who are crying out for freedom today. Celebrations like this holiday are not an opportunity to simply praise the courage of others; they are a challenge to continue to do more, rooted in grand traditions of love, truth, and nonviolence. 

Dr. King
Civil rights icon Martin Luther King in 1964. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Together with the 45 state coordinating committees of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, I’m honoring Dr. King by publicly committing to go full, all-out in this moment of our national sickness—when we see political and physical insurrection, assaults on the poor, widespread assaults on voting rights and democracy, misinformation campaigns, and billions spent to divide us—at this moment, we are committed to mobilizing the largest mass assembly of poor people and low-wage workers in this nation’s history on June 18, 2022. 

We must give ourselves to this moment.

When I reread our Constitution of the United States, and I look at the glaring realities of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, underfunding of education, denial of healthcare, overfunding of the war economy, and the false and distorted morality of religious nationalism coupled with notions of white supremacy, then it is clear to me that we face a crisis of possibility.

We face a crisis of civilization, a crisis of democracy, and a crisis of morality that we must seek redemption from. We must believe we have in God the spiritual power to turn in new directions, towards a more beloved community. At this moment, we have an obligation to bear witness to new possibilities.

There must be a Third Reconstruction in America. We must, in the nonviolent moral tradition, put a face on the pain that obstructionism is causing and shift the moral narrative, build power, and place before the nation an agenda and way forward that refuses to accept the lies of scarcity and the constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible, politically insensitive and economically insane politics we are witnessing today.

When COVID hit in 2020, it glaringly exposed the fissures of systemic racism and poverty in this nation.

Yet, because of the outright obstructionism of Sen. Mitch McConnell’s extremist Republicans in the Senate and the gradualism of so-called moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Congress has been unable to pass even a watered-down responsive step ($1.9 trillion over 10 years) to invest in the uplift of the 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this nation.

These same forces refuse to pass the For the People Act or the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, hiding behind the non-constitutional and historically regressive racist filibuster.  

Voting Rights Rallies Held In Washington DC
Activists participate in a Make Good Trouble Rally at the Lincoln Memorial August 28, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

This is why poor and low-wealth people (who represent 30% of the electorate and 45% in battleground states) have decided to intensify and embolden their outcry, outreach, and organizing to shift the moral narrative in this nation. This moment demands a generationally transformative action. We cannot go back to the normal before COVID. We must seize this opportunity to create a country that works for all of us.

This year’s Mass Poor People’s & Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls on June 18 is not just a day of action. It is a declaration of an ongoing, committed, nonviolent, truth-telling, multiracial, interfaith moral movement.

We will 1) shift the moral narrative; 2) build and mobilize political voting power, and 3) make real policies to fully address poverty and low wealth from the bottom up and protect and expand voting rights and the fundamental infrastructure of our democracy.

America must address simultaneously systemic racism, systemic poverty, denial of healthcare, ecological devastation, the war economy and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism and white supremacy with a movement agenda that brings together Blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans—people from every race, creed, color, region and sexuality, united by a moral fusion agenda and long-term nonviolent moral activism and analysis informed by our deepest constitutional and religious values.

William Barber theGrio

Bishop William J. Barber II is the President & Senior Lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival; Bishop with The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries; Visiting Professor at Union Theological Seminary; Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and the author of four books: “We Are Called To Be A Movement”; “Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing”; “The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and The Rise of a New Justice Movement”; and “Forward Together: A Moral Message For The Nation.

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