A couple of weeks ago, the Poor People’s campaign celebrated a decade of Moral Mondays, a weekly protest led by Bishop William Barber II that addresses inequalities in America. Recently, Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign held a Moral Monday protest in Nashville, Tennessee, to stand with Tennesseans who are pleading with their legislators for gun control measures in the aftermath of the Covenant School shooting, which took the lives of six people in March, three of whom were nine-year-old children. We caught up with Bishop Barber to talk about the importance of protest, what people get wrong about the South, and why the Poor People’s Campaign considers racism and classism to be twin pillars of oppression.
Hi, Bishop Barber. Would you reflect a bit on the legacy of Moral Mondays, since you’ve recently passed the 10-year anniversary?
One of the unique things about the Moral Monday movement is that we found you can organize among Black and white people, Latino and Asian people, and people with different political persuasions. If you don’t use the puny language of left versus right, and conservative versus liberal, once you start talking about what’s right versus wrong and people’s fundamental values—you may not get everybody, but you can get a strong group of people. To be a part of a movement that 10 years ago showed that even when you’re in the minority, you can still fight, you can still challenge and you can win, and you can win in the South—that’s why I’m always so disgusted when people say things like, “The South is just red states.” No! The South is mostly unorganized states where people have been intentionally divided.
The Southern strategy that began in the 1960s intentionally worked to divide people. The divisions can be overcome. But too often what happens is, even with progressives and Democrats, they don’t go to the South. Or when they do go, they still talk about neoliberalism only touching the middle class, or they really don’t reach out and show people how intersected and connected we are. Many times, they don’t come to the South and tell how policies will impact Southerners. One-third of all poor white people live in the South. It has boggled my mind for years. Why didn’t President Obama, when Medicaid expansion was passed, do a major tour in the South and show how people were being lied to? Why did presidential candidates?
Do you realize that in the states like Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia, the majority of the people that can benefit from this are poor whites? The majority of people who’ll benefit from Medicaid expansion are working people who still can’t get health care? Why not come to the South and show that the people who lied to you about voter suppression are the same people who are blocking your living wages and blocking your health care. Make those connections.
The South has always been the place from which our biggest social transformations have come. One of the things I’m most proud of about the Moral Monday movement is that our organizing strategy is proof that you can win here—not just protest, win. Whether it’s the work I’ve done in Eastern Kentucky or Tennessee or down in Alabama, over and over again, what I’m finding is the South is not red or blue. The South is an intentionally divided region, unorganized. If you spend the time and bring people together around their deeply religious, moral values, even today, it would only take 25 percent of poor, low wealth holders of every race, creed, and color who have not voted, who been turned off because they don’t ever hear their issues talked about, to vote an agenda, there’s nowhere in the South where you could not determine who sits in the White House, who sits in the Senate, who sits in the governor’s office. And that’s where we need to be putting our efforts.
It has been my experience, particularly in spaces with upper-middle class white people who do not live in the South, that when I speak about being Southern, those people will express disgust or horror at my love for the South. “I hate Tennessee, I refuse to go there,” or “How can you live in a place like that?” Have you encountered that?
They don’t know. And part of it is that we bought the lie. There’s a book called The Time of Illusion, by Jonathan Schell, that investigates corruption in the Nixon administration. Kevin Phillips, and Pat Buchanan, and few others, went to Richard Nixon and said, “A George Wallace figure can’t win because he’s too racist, but if you will follow what they call ‘intentional positive polarization,’ you can win this.” They said, “We’ve got to split the South, split the nation. We have to use the animus against the peace movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the LGBT movement. Now, we won’t divide everybody, but if we divide folks enough, and teach that poor whites are poor because Black and brown folks are getting these things, we can split the South enough that it might get out of control. But if we split it, we can split from Maryland, all the way over to the Southwest. And we can fund it. And we can find code words like tax cuts and entitlements, instead of straight racist words. And if we do this, we can control a lot of the Congress, and even the presidency over the next 50 to 60 years.”
Most of the time, when people talk about the South, they don’t know that history. They also don’t know that the reason why the division was put into place is because they saw the changing demographics in the South. They knew that if organized political figures would truly bring a message that racism and classism are interlocking injustices that hurt all people, that message could win.
They don’t know that the reconstruction movements in the South were assassinated and killed. Those movements didn’t just stop—they were beaten and destroyed.
They haven’t looked at the actual numbers and data. All of the major rebirthings of America have come out of the South. When I share this with the people you just talked about, they have no clue, and when they hear it, it blows their mind. In 1965, at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march, Dr. King did a major speech standing on the steps of the Alabama statehouse. I actually think it’s his greatest speech. In that speech, he starts unpacking why segregation existed in the first place. He goes back to post-slavery, what he called the populace movement, or the reconstruction movement.
In less than seven years, from the end of the Civil War to around 1872, major shifts happened, because Black and white people found themselves together. Most of the Southern legislatures, whether they had a dominant Black body or were predominantly white, were progressive, and they focused on things like wages, education, voting rights. They were able to show poor and low-wealth white people that they had been taken advantage of, too, by slavery and racism.
Dr. King is working through all this on the steps. And then he says—and I’m paraphrasing—he says, “Let me tell you why segregation exists, and why there’s such an attack on our fight for voting rights. It’s not just about Black people.” He says—and I take this everywhere I go—he says, “The greatest fear of the aristocracy in this country, especially in the South, is for the masses of Negroes and the masses of poor white people to come together and form a voting bloc that could fundamentally shift the economic architecture of the country.”
What Dr. King was saying is that the power is here. When people are saying, “Well, the South is this,” or “the South is that,” they’re writing off the very part of this country that can change and move it. You can’t be concerned about LGBT rights and not be concerned about mobilizing the South. You can’t be concerned about workers’ rights and not be concerned about mobilizing the South. You can’t be concerned with health care, anything, without being concerned about mobilizing the South.
Earlier you mentioned classism as an injustice that works in tandem with racism. Could you expound on that a little more?
When Pete Buttigieg was at our church when he was running for president, I asked him, “Why is it that the Democratic party can’t say the word ‘poor’?” Why can’t y’all say the word, ‘poor’? There are something like 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this country. So why can’t you say it? Why is it always “middle-class”? And why is it that you are using these numbers that say there are only 30 million poor people in this country because you look at poverty as a single person making under $13,000 a year, but anybody making over $13,000 is considered not poor, according to a government metric, which was designed, I believe, to lessen our consciousness around poverty. So I asked him. And he said, “Reverend Barber, I may get in trouble for this, but I’m going to tell you the truth. They tell us not to say it. The consultants tell us not to use that word, that it will turn people off, and what we need to do is talk about working people.”
But poor people are working people.
That’s what I’m saying. They are working people. I said, “How have you had all these presidential debates, when have y’all had one debate that focuses on if you get elected, what are you going to do to address the plight of 140 plus million people living in poverty?” And why is it that when we talk about voter suppression, we’re only talking to Black audiences? Why is it that when we talk about the middle-class, that’s aimed at primarily white audiences? What our movement is saying is that this is ridiculous.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.