Rev. William Barber Is reviving Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ‘Poor People’s Campaign’


The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the Moral Mondays movement that opposed North Carolina’s “most restrictive voting law in the nation,” recently scored a major victory against this TeaPublican tyranny. Strict North Carolina Voter ID Law Thwarted After Supreme Court Rejects Case:

The Supreme Court on Monday refused to revive a restrictive North Carolina voting law that a federal appeals court had struck down as an unconstitutional effort to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.”

The court’s decision not to hear an appeal in the case effectively overturned one of the most far-reaching attempts by Republicans to counter what they contended, without evidence, was widespread voter fraud in North Carolina. The law rejected the forms of identification used disproportionately by blacks, including IDs issued to government employees, students and people receiving public assistance.

Fresh off this victory, Rev. Barber announced last week that he will step down as president of the North Carolina NAACP and lead a new national initiative that aims to end poverty and begin what Rev. Barber calls “a national moral revival.” The Nation reports, The Rev. William Barber Is Bringing MLK’s Poor People’s Campaign Back to Life:

This new Poor People’s Campaign will pick up where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. left off 50 years ago when he turned his focus to uniting poor people across lines of race and geography and pushing their priorities onto the federal agenda.

The campaign, which launches in partnership the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, will bring together organizations with a longstanding commitment to confronting poverty and inequality—local and national groups such as Picture the Homeless in New York and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. Barber said a task force made up of poor people and economists, theologians, and other experts will in September release a report called “The Souls of Poor Folks” that will lay out the campaign’s agenda.

Much of the action will kick off next year, when the campaign plans to stage nonviolent direct action in 25 state capitols and Washington, DC.  Barber said Monday at an event at the Davie Street Presbyterian Church in Raleigh. The states chosen represent the worst of the nation’s current political climate: Their governors refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Their legislatures have passed voter-suppression laws in recent years. They lack living-wage laws and employment and housing protections for LGBTQ people.

“Extremism is at work in other states and has gained power in all three branches of our federal government, much as it did here four years ago,” Barber said Monday in North Carolina. “We know that the way to change the nation is to nationalize state movements. We have to do it with a state-up model.”

* * *

It was Moral Mondays protesters, for example, who put their bodies on the line to challenge the state’s racially discriminatory voting law, which the Supreme Court effectively overturned this week by declining to hear an appeal on a lower court’s ruling. When this breaking news was announced in the Raleigh church where Barber spoke Monday, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause. Many of the people packed into the sanctuary had been on the front lines of the fight.

Barber knows the power of direct action, and he’s had success organizing across lines of race and party. Under his leadership, North Carolina’s NAACP has fostered the growth of five majority-white branches in the western, Appalachian and primarily Republican part of the state, field organizer Laurel Ashton said Monday. Barber had promised such changes to the organization when he successfully ran for president in 2006 with a promise to move the state conference “from banquets to battle.” During his tenure, these battles have included a campaign to organize black and Latino workers at a Smithfield Foods meat processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, and a school-desegregation battle in Wake County.

* * *

Barber roots his agitation in moral rather than political terms. Making health care accessible and affordable, addressing criminal justice disparities, protecting and expanding voting rights, creating good jobs — these are moral issues rather than fodder for partisan debate in his eyes. “This is not about left versus right,” he said Monday in Raleigh. “There are certain things that are not left, right, but they are the center of authentic moral values—like love, like justice, like mercy, like caring for the least of these.”

Barber made the same argument last summer when he issued a call for “a moral revolution of values” at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Screen Shot 2017-05-21 at 3.36.23 PM

“I’m worried by the way faith is cynically used by some to serve hate, fear, racism and greed,” he told the crowd. Instead, it was the low-wage workers on the front lines of the Fight for $15 protests, those advocates fighting to preserve and expand quality public education, those confronting hypocrisy and discrimination who were, as he put it, “reviving the heart of our democracy.” The Poor People’s Campaign is an effort to operationalize the vision he outlined at the DNC.

“This is not a commemoration,” Barber said Monday of his continuation of King’s work, which launched in 1967. “This is a commencement of building a long-term movement to begin shifting our national moral narrative.”

Rev. Barber had an opinion published at Think Progress last week about his new mission. “America needs a new Poor People’s CampaignThe future of our democracy depends on us completing the work of a Third Reconstruction“:

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. . .

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.

* * *

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. William Barber is also the author of the book The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement (January 12, 2016). If you have not read it, check it out from your local public library, or donate a copy to your public library from your favorite bookstore.


  1. Rev. Barber is the right leader for the times. Despite what the country is enduring, we have to think about the future as if we actually have one.

Comments are closed.