The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, towering over a stage on the National Mall, tells his DJ to spin an O’Jays song. Barber, a black Christian minister with a long record of speaking truth to power, begins a speech about the plight of poor whites in the heartland. Before he can finish, the 1975 funk staple “Got to Give the People What They Want” blares from the rafters: Without pausing, the 54-year-old preacher sways at the podium, shouting to the crowd, “You can’t fight if you don’t know how to dance.”
Barber has been making waves with resonant sermons about politics and social-justice issues at his Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, starting a “Moral Mondays” movement that’s successfully united a diverse coalition of activists against the state’s Republican leadership. Now, Barber is bringing his holy, rolling crusade to the national stage, reviving Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign. This past Saturday, he brought his movement to the nation’s capital.
“You cannot address poverty unless you address systemic racism,” Barber says. “Racism is not Roseanne Barr’s words. Racism is when you pass policy that hurts black and brown people. When you take voting rights. When you hurt indigenous people. When you stack the courts with racist judges. That’s racism.”
Fifty years ago, here on this long patch of mud and grass, police stormed Resurrection City, a shantytown that sprouted around the Mall’s reflecting pool after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It had been populated with activists of the Poor People’s Campaign – King’s movement in the wake of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts to expand the struggle for racial justice to a broader fight against inequality and poverty.
Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice, reignited the Campaign three years ago, intending to fulfill King’s unfinished vision. They champion a platform to end mass incarceration, gerrymandering, the war economy, deportations and ecological devastation (and support affordable health care and housing, a living wage, free public education and gender equality).
Reclaiming the language of morality from the religious right, the campaign has galvanized a broad, multiracial coalition of activists that – in their quest to heal America – are willing to shut it down. In a six-week program of civil disobedience this spring, more than 2,500 protesters faced arrest for occupying statehouses in Nashville, Little Rock, Albany, Indianapolis and elsewhere. Saturday’s rally was both a culmination of all these local demonstrations, and a launch party for actions to come. “This is your graduation,” Barber told the thousands sprawled in front of the Capitol. “Now it’s time to go to work.”
With Trump attacking people of color, the poor, immigrants, women and veterans, among many others, a “fusion movement,” as Barber calls it, may be more essential than ever. “You do not commemorate prophets,” Barber insisted before introducing a roster of guest speakers, including Rev. Jesse Jackson and the actor Danny Glover, “You reach down in the blood where they fell, pick up the baton, and carry it the next mile of the way.”
While the Poor People’s Campaign is an oft-forgotten chapter of King’s legacy, poverty remains a dismal reality. In May, the United Nations published a report revealing that, across the country, there are 40 million poor and about half as many living in “extreme poverty.” Last week, seemingly in complete denial, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said that not only was the study bogus, but the idea of examining “extreme poverty in America” was itself “patently ridiculous.” According to the Poor People’s Campaign, the crisis is much worse, with more than 140 million Americans “either poor or low-income.”
“I was too broke to overdose,” one speaker, Annie, said as she described her harrowing story of addiction and homelessness in the small town of Aberdeen, Washington. “I feel like I’m on the right side of history, and I’m finally hopeful my daughter’s future will turn out all right, and not some Mad Max bullshit.” Barber reflected on meeting Annie for the first time: “She told us, ‘I’m the white trash America threw out and forgot to burn. And I’m in the Poor People’s Campaign. All of us are coming together.'”
That big-tent sentiment – key to understanding the campaign’s aim to energize folks who might normally be on opposite ends of the culture wars – was reflected both onstage and among the audience members on Saturday.
Out on the street, I met Cantor Steven Puzarne, a Jewish clergyman from Los Angeles wearing a “Dump Trump” shirt he’d scored during the inauguration. “We have to get this fascist monster out of the White House,” Puzarne says, adding that his community is attempting to publicly censure Stephen Miller, one of Trump’s top aides and the architect of the Muslim travel ban. “[Miller’s] trampled on everything our tradition believes in – he was also my bar mitzvah student when he was 13.”
On Independence Avenue, as the rally turned into a march to the Capitol, where Barber, Jackson and Theoharis delivered a stack of petitions, Bob Morgan, an elderly man from Savannah, Georgia, says, “I’m here because I’m a Christian who believes the poor are groaning. We’re praying before Congress, who God is going to hold accountable.”
Marching alongside Puzarne and Morgan was Al-Sharif Nassef, a human-rights activist who wrote Bernie Sanders’ Muslim outreach strategy. “I’m here because I’m answering MLK’s call for a revolution of values,” says Nassef, carrying a sign with a list of virtues like peace, mercy, justice and vitality, written in Arabic.
Dan Gall, a civilian contractor for the Defense Department, describes himself as a “class traitor.” Gall notes that he is both a libertarian and a democrat and that this is his second-ever protest. His first was at CIA headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, for whistleblower Chelsea Manning.
As the march returned to the Mall, Barber reminded the crowd that this was not an anniversary celebration. “We’re not history; we’re making history,” he said. Or, as Suzy Hassan, an artist from D.C. who visited Resurrection City in 1968, reflects, “Everything here is a motivation. There’s so much work to be done, and it will be done.”
But in the meantime, onstage, a band ushers the crowd out with a signature jam, repeating the chorus, to a drum line, “Ain’t no party like a poor peoples’ party, ’cause a poor peoples’ party don’t stop.”