Rev. William J. Barber II: America is now at the "most critical time, between life and death"

Founder of Poor People's Movement says focusing so much on Trump and racism was a mistake — but "the fight is on"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 20, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Rev. Dr. William Barber (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)
Rev. Dr. William Barber (Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

The Republican Party is currently trying to inject lethal poison into America's body politic in a systematic effort to prevent Black and brown people, and other core Democratic constituencies, from voting. It has become clear that today's Republicans actively view majoritarian democracy as their enemy. It is no exaggeration to say that fascism, white identity politics and white supremacy are being deployed to create a 21st-century American apartheid.

In fact, the Republican goal goes beyond entrenched minority rule by whites. More specifically, it envisions a nation dominated by a white male plutocracy in which Christian nationalism and authoritarianism are protected by law and where property will always be valued above human rights and human dignity. Resistance and other forms of dissent will de facto become illegal. In this context, "centrist" Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin must be seen as collaborators in the Republican assault on democracy.

It is also true that the Republican Party is poisoning American society through its willful negligence regarding the coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed at least 670,000 people in the United States. While the Biden administration has done a remarkable job in promoting vaccines and other efforts to defeat the pandemic, its efforts are being systematically sabotaged by its political opponents. It is now estimated that at least one of every 500 Americans has died of COVID-19, and public health experts agree that a large proportion of those deaths could have been prevented.

COVID has been especially devastating for Black people, Latinos and Native Americans, as well as older people and those with disabilities or pre-existing illness. In total, the American people have lost many millions of years of life because of this plague.

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If American democracy were a patient, its current status would be critical and unstable. To heal and recover will require more than treating the evident symptoms, but also confronting the deeper ailments that afflict our nation. 

To discuss those questions and much more, I recently spoke with the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach. He is also the architect of the Forward Together Moral Movement, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign and author of several books, including his most recent, "We Are Called to Be a Movement." He is a frequent guest on CNN, ABC and MSNBC as well as Democracy Now! His essays and other writing have been featured in leading publications, including the Washington Post and the New York Times.

In this conversation, Rev. Barber explains that America's crises of democracy, racism, poverty, wealth and income inequality, religious nationalism, ecological collapse and more must be confronted in a holistic and systemic fashion if the country is to be rehabilitated and transformed. Barber argues that it was a mistake focusing too much on Donald Trump as an individual, rather than the ways his rise to power and the emergence of an American fascist movement revealed a much deeper and older disease.

He also warns that Republican attacks on Black and brown people's voting rights (and civil rights more broadly) are a weapon used to damage the progressive cause and hurt Americans on both sides of the color line. Barber urges the Democrats to find their moral principles and stand up for the average American, especially the poor and working classes, instead of becoming obsessed with public opinion polls, "bipartisanship", and seeking compromise with the evident evil embodied by today's Republican Party.

This conversation has been edited, as usual, for length and clarity.     

People are feeling exhausted by the Republican Party's torrent of attacks on democracy and society. What would you tell those folks about staying motivated and fighting off despair?

As you know, the infamous Dred Scott ruling deemed that a Black man has no rights that a white man ever has to respect. Frederick Douglass was asked two months after that to speak to an abolitionist group. People were depressed and not sure of what to do next. Frederick Douglass didn't lie. He said, this is bad, this is monstrous. Douglass also said, the courts are against us, the magistrates are against us. But that is just one side of the story. Douglass continued, saying that every attempt to stop the abolitionist movement has only served to embolden and intensify our agitation. The fight is not off, the fight is on.

Right now, what I see too much of is an unwillingness to fight, a type of acceptance of the situation. I was asked on "Morning Joe," what if I go to West Virginia and push Sen. Manchin, and we lose the next election there? I responded, "Why do you all start with, 'What if you lose?'" What if you inspire the hundreds of thousands of poor, low-wealth people in that state who are not voting? Have you seen how many of those voters there are in West Virginia? If you got those low-wealth, low-income voters, the Democrats could get a marginal victory.

It's not impossible to do, but you can't move them if you don't at least fight for fundamental things. For example, fighting for the $15 living wage, There has to be a return by the Democrats to a fundamental understanding that there are some things which are bigger than just the latest poll number. We must fight and win.

Jim and Jane Crow were not vanquished. Those demons are being summoned up and empowered by the Republican Party and their war on democracy, and specifically on Black and brown people's voting rights and human rights. If one lacks a historical perspective, this seems insurmountable. How do you reconcile the past and the present in terms of these struggles of justice?

First of all, we should have never suggested that if you get rid of Trump then you get rid of the problem. Donald Trump was not the problem; he was the symptom. Trump was the beneficiary of the Southern strategy, which was launched some 50 years ago by the Republicans. They decided that the way to win is to intentionally divide the country by making the Republican Party the party of white people who were angry about the victories of the civil rights movement.

Again, Donald Trump is more of a symptom of a larger problem. In that way, he is like the mucus that comes out of your nose when you have pneumonia.

To win, we need to move beyond isolating the problems facing this country. We need to focus on systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, denial of health care, the war economy and religious nationalism — all as one issue. In total, these are interlocking injustices.

The battle over voting rights and democracy we are experiencing right now should never have been discussed as a type of new Jim Crow. This is not Jim Crow. It is really "James Crow, Esquire." The same kinds of laws that were passed in Texas are being passed in West Virginia, where there are hardly any Black people. Racism is operative in the Republican Party's attacks on voting rights, but it is not just motivated by racism.

These new bills are being backed by the Koch brothers, among others. The goal here is to silence and shut down the progressive voice. The extremists who have hijacked the Republican Party by using "James Crow, Esquire" are looking at the long game. This is not just Jim Crow. Don't make this just a Black issue. Show the racist side of this issue that, yes, in Texas, they're trying to block people of color, but those laws are also going to hurt disabled people and women. In West Virginia they're doing the same thing, but the majority of people who are going to be hurt in that state are white, poor and low-wealth voters. This is an attack on democracy itself.

Why is there so much fear and refusal by too many to use the proper moral language, to speak the truth, about Trumpism, the Republicans and this attack on democracy? This is a moral struggle. There is so much cowardice. How do you maintain your moral clarity?

We do it by building a movement across the country, such as with the Poor People's Campaign and the national call for moral revival. We stay among the people who are most impacted, and they will keep the fight in you.

It's hard to not have courage when you're around people who fight every day, and they keep their courage. We saw this is in West Virginia at our anniversary caravan and gathering to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the Battle for Blair Mountain, where Black and white miners fought together for their rights.

That's part of the problem for Democrats. They don't talk to the people. They talk about the people, they talk at the people, but they don't bring the people in. By comparison, we stay emboldened by staying clear on our moral foundations. Part of the problem is with language, "left versus right" and "moderate" and "conservative" is too puny. It's not about left versus right, it's about right versus wrong.

The second reason is that too many politicians are not really reading the Bible, the book they put their hands on when they were sworn into office. The Bible makes it very clear that some things are evil. For example, there are members of Congress and others in government who do not seem to realize how ugly it is to go to John Lewis' body, laying in state in the Rotunda — whether you are a Republican or a Democrat — and claim that you love him but then go and fight against everything he stood for.

Another example: Democrats and others have said what the Republicans are doing is the worst attack on voting rights since after the Civil War. Well, if it's the worst attack since the Civil War, how do you compromise on the solution?

If 700 people were dying every day from poverty before COVID, how do you not call that, to borrow from Dr. King, a form of government-sponsored murder? Poverty destroys lives. Poverty is not the result of the immoral actions of poor people. Poverty is the result of bad public policy.

What can the average American, everyday people, do in their daily lives to maintain clarity and struggle for justice?

When I tell folks to join the movement, I do not mean join an organization. You haven't heard me one time say that the Poor People's Campaign is an organization. That grows out of our way of organizing, which is modeled on the Reconstruction movement of the 19th century.

You are part of a movement when you agree with the core principles and incorporate the struggle into your life. In essence, the movement becomes your meditation. The movement becomes your courage, hooking up with other people becomes your strength. It becomes your day-to-day activity. It is not just participating in a march.

Learning from American history, the 1963 March on Washington happened because there were 400 or 500 cities where people were already engaged and involved in activities such as civil disobedience. Many folks forget that at the end of the 1963 march, Martin Luther King said, "Go back." Folks remember "I have a dream," but King finished with, "Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back, go back, go back. Go back, keep fighting."

When we summon moral language and describe our struggle as a moral movement, what we are really saying is that this is why I'm alive. This is what's going to get me up in the morning, not my alarm clock. This is what my life purpose is. You don't fight systems on your own. You don't try to figure out what you can do by yourself. "We" is the most important word in the justice vocabulary. It's not what I can do, it's what we can do.

America feels like it is about to burst. There is something profoundly wrong in American society right now. So many forces of destruction and evil and other troubles are coming together and there has been no closure.

Well it is. There can't be any closure until we face it. It can't be. This is not new to this society. Imagine Black slaves year after year with no closure. One of the things we have to realize is that this is not new in the American reality, but what is also not new in the American reality is people who find, in the midst of those moments, their purpose and their courage.

My question is, can America survive? Can America survive with over 87 million people uninsured or underinsured? Can America survive with these fundamental attacks on democracy? America is already to some degree an oligarchy. Decisions are being made by money in politics rather than the votes of people. We are about to burst, and we are bursting.

Now the question is, where's the energy going to go? Because it's going somewhere. And it is always when a nation is about to burst that moral movements are birthed. If you do not have the moral movements, then that energy can go in directions that are utterly destructive. But that bursting can also be a birthing. As has been explained to me, when a woman has a baby, it is the most critical time between life and death, and the most creative time.

Is this moment in America going to be a tomb or a womb? Is it going to be the burying of democracy, or is it going to be the birthing of a new freedom?

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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