"You are going to hear our voices": Rev. William J. Barber on the midterms and the road ahead

Don't fear the word "poor," Barber says: If poor people voted in large numbers, that would change everything

Published September 24, 2022 8:00AM (EDT)

Reverend William Barber II delivers the sermon at Tabernacle Baptist Church on March 6, 2022 in Selma, Alabama. (Getty Images)
Reverend William Barber II delivers the sermon at Tabernacle Baptist Church on March 6, 2022 in Selma, Alabama. (Getty Images)

This article originally appeared in slightly different form at Insider NJ. Used by permission.

I recently spoke to the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, on the campus of Princeton University, where he delivered the keynote address for the U.S. chapter of the World Student Christian Federation, a global network of more than 100 progressive Christian student movements around the world.

In January of 2021, Barber delivered the homily at President Joe Biden's inaugural prayer service at Washington's National Cathedral. Over the past two years, he has repeatedly expressed disappointment that the Biden administration and a Democratic Congress have been unable to raise the federal minimum wage above $7.25 an hour, nor to make the expanded child tax credit permanent.

After Barber's keynote address, I sat down with him to discuss the coming midterm elections and the larger choices facing American society. 

We are having an election soon, here in New Jersey and around the country. In 2021, you had a national study done of voters and you found that in New Jersey alone, some 400,000 low-wage and low-wealth voters were registered to vote but did not go to the polls in 2020. How would you counsel people that want these people to turn out? Could you coach them on being successful going door-to-door in communities where folks did not vote?

It's waking a sleeping giant with that study from the Kairos Center and Repairers of the Breach/Poor People's Campaign. I was talking to Shailly Barnes and I said, "We need to look at this." Ee had touched 2 million people in 2020 and we know that Biden got 53 percent of the poor and low-wealth vote, What we found were three things: No. 1, don't go into these communities and say, you just need to vote. Say, we honor you, because we respect that some of them have not voted because they never heard anybody call their name. Politicians don't talk about them most of the time. They talk about the middle class, the upper class or those desiring to the American Dream. But we need to say the word "poor."

If you look at the number of poor people — 52 million without a living wage, 140 million [overall] — you have to talk to them as human beings. Second of all, say to them, "I am not here to ask you to vote. I am here for you to join a movement that says there's something wrong with our policies that this many people can be left disinherited." Thirdly, I am asking you to believe that democracy is not just an idea, but democracy and justice are on the ballot. 

So who you are going to elect is going to determine health care. It is going to determine if you can push them to do the right thing because if people who get elected tell you upfront, "Don't come to me about a living wage, don't even talk to me," then you don't have a real chance with them. And lastly, let people know how much power they have. There is not a battleground state where the presidential election has been decided within three percentage points where poor and low-wealth people don't make up 45 percent of the electorate. There's not a state in the country where poor and low wealth people don't make up 33 percent of the electorate. In my state, North Carolina, it wouldn't take more than 19 percent, which is right around 120,000, of the 600,000 poor and low-wealth people who didn't vote [to make a difference].

Is it fair to say that we have Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock today because of the turnout of low-wage and low-wealth voters?

There is not a battleground state where the presidential election has been decided within three percentage points where poor and low-wealth people don't make up 45 percent of the electorate.

Sure. What we found in that study was that if you looked at the numbers, they turned out because they and the president were running on the living-wage issue. That's why politicians can't go back — politicians, hear me today! — you can't stop talking about a living wage and voting rights. That's what people heard. Yes, we have done some things on climate change — historic things. Great. Yes, we have done some things with Medicare and pricing on the drugs. Great. But you can't dismiss what was left off: voting rights and a living wage. You have to tell people, "Give us the kind of majority where we can't be overturned easily and we will deal with that — we will deal with the filibuster. We will give you a living wage." That's how Warnock and them won. We touched about 200,000 people in Georgia and then we went back and looked at how they voted and where they voted, and large percentage of them who had not voted before — they voted for an agenda.

So you have to come to people with your heart and ears open and ask what's hurting them. How has the system failed them? You have to get involved in a deeper conversation.

If there are 85 million low-income voters in this country and 58 million voted in the last election, —the highest turnout in recent years — that's 27 million people who did not vote. You don't say, 27 million people are stupid or 27 million people are uninformed or 27 million don't have consciousness. They have had some legitimate reason, and it may not be your reason but we already know what the reasons are — and we have to hear that and let those people know what their power is.

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For the politicians, they need to go and apologize sometimes. Look at these campaigns we are running now. Tell me one state where there's been a debate about what they are going to do about poverty. Even in the presidential race it didn't happen. Every problem we face — poverty, lack of health care, lack of a living wage — is created by policy. They can be changed by policy, and poor and low-wealth people hold the power to put people in office that can make a difference.

I was speaking with George Gresham, who leads 1199 SEIU East and has taken a heroic stand for universal health care. I was just in Trenton at a rally where public workers and health care workers involved with fighting the pandemic were protesting a 20 to 24 percent increase in their health insurance premiums, which would do away with whatever wage increase they got. Why are we dodging this issue? Why don't we hear about universal health care in this election campaign?

Too many of these consultants, especially Democratic consultants, try to find one issue. They say now we can just focus on Jan. 6 or rolling back Roe v. Wade. What you have to do is connect that: The same people that did Jan. 6 also rolled back Roe, also block living wages, also block health care and also block voting rights. Connect the dots. Don't disconnect the dots. 

Democratic consultants try to find one issue: We just focus on Jan. 6, or Roe v. Wade. You have to connect that: The people who did Jan. 6 also rolled back Roe. They also block living wages, health care and voting rights.

But we also have this group called "moderates" on both sides and they believe more in order than reordering society. We have universal congressional health care because every Congress member and senator gets health care the minute they get elected. It's universal and we pay for it. So we are the only country of the 25 wealthiest countries in the world that does not offer some form of universal health care. In essence, we say in America that your health care is connected to your job, and not your body. That's immoral, particularly to me as a Christian. My health care should be connected to my body. I never saw Jesus charge a co-pay. I never saw  Jesus say, "I will heal you of leprosy — but wait a minute, I got to get something from you first." 

We have to have a retooling of the narrative, but it is only going to happen if poor and low-wage people do it. That's why we are organizing poor and low-wealth people, advocates and religious leaders, because we have to be the ones to reshape the moral narrative.

This seems to be happening in workplaces: Amazon, Starbucks, Dollar General, Chipotle.

Oh my — the poorest workers are organizing like never before. There is something happening in this country and I am glad of it, because I am going to tell you: There is a flip side, Poor and low-wealth people realize that addressing these interlocking issues like systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, denial of health care and the war economy are all critical to the soul of the nation. If people ever stop believing the nation has a soul, that's the breeding ground for demagogues, autocrats. That's how Hitlers, Putins and other folks get into office. That's not healthy ground. We saw Jan. 6. I don't want to ever see 140 million poor and low-wealth people in this country lose hope and start operating from a place of despair.

You mentioned the tribulation of the pandemic. Government and businesses failed to protect the people. Isn't it possible we are looking around after this tribulation and our families and immediate households are in a higher position in our hearts because it's all we had to get us through this?

That is all we ever had, but the pandemic forced us to realize that our breath is not promised to us, that all of us have six minutes and all of our loved ones have six minutes, I have had to wrestle with that. I have an immunodeficiency. Why am I not dead? Other people around me have died. I am not here because I am better than those people. I am here because the spirit says to me that the question is not why am I still here, but what I am going to do while I am still here.

We watched a million  people die and we have not had a month of mourning — not one month. Think about that. Some people are starting to say, wait a minute, I have to restore some sense of caring, because something is wrong here when billionaires can make $2 trillion and poor people can't even get a living wage or health care or paid family leave in the middle of a pandemic.

That's a brokenness, and that is only going to be changed when poor and low-wealth people, religious leaders and advocates start activating that song we sing, "Make Them Hear You". It's an old song that comes from a Broadway play. It says make them hear you, not with hatred, not with insurrection but with moral resurrection. That's why people are saying we are not going to be silent. You are going to see our faces. You are going to hear our voice and you are going to feel our votes. 

By Bob Hennelly

Bob Hennelly has written and reported for the Village Voice, Pacifica Radio, WNYC, CBS MoneyWatch and other outlets. His book, "Stuck Nation: Can the United States Change Course on Our History of Choosing Profits Over People?" was published in 2021 by Democracy@Work. He is now a reporter for the Chief-Leader, covering public unions and the civil service in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @stucknation

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