When he speaks, the Rev. William Barber of North Carolina invites flattering comparisons to one of the best orators the world has ever known, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The similarities extend past their sonorous voices and thundering speaking style: Both are Southern black preachers and social justice prophets.
On Monday, Barber extended a formal invitation to Memphis’ faith community and progressives: Join the resurrection of the anti-poverty campaign King was planning in 1968 when he was crucified.
“Dr. King took a detour to come here and 50 years later, Memphis has the distinction of having the highest poverty rate of any metro area in the United States,” he said, as the crowd at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church gasped.
One in about five Tennesseans lives in poverty, reported Barber as he methodically made the case for an economic revival. Just over half of workers in Tennessee make less than $15 an hour in a right-to-work state, which, Barber pointed out, means employers have a right to fire workers for no cause. Memphis has one of the highest child poverty rates in the nation.
“We can’t let this continue to be the legacy of the place where he fell,” said Barber, who stepped down as the head of the North Carolina NAACP to lead Repairers of the Breach, a progressive and ecumenical group building the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
“We cannot keep having these celebrations and commemorations, and remembering what was done then and abdicating our responsibility to do what needs to be done now.”
Barber spoke to a crowd of more than 1,000 gathered on what finally felt like a fall night after weeks of warm weather. Only part of the main floor of the sanctuary at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church was full. The balcony was empty.
As is true of most social justice movements in Memphis, most of the attendees were black, in a far greater share than the two-thirds of the city’s population they comprise. While just under 30 percent of the city’s residents are white, about 5 percent of attendees Monday were.
In that way, 2017 looks like the picture painted by historians of 1968, who wrote of how few white people aligned themselves with the underpaid, mistreated, striking black sanitation workers whose plight drew King to town. Again, those who profit from the status quo were absent, maybe ignorant of efforts to disrupt their unearned place of power and control.
But Barber reminded the crowd that in 1968, many black pastors didn’t support the movement. King’s Poor People’s Campaign happened without the support of any major denominations.
Monday’s event was coordinated by the clergy committee of National Civil Rights Museum’s citywide MLK50 commemoration. It was the first of three Moral Monday table talks, which drew inspiration from the years long Moral Monday campaign Barber led in North Carolina.
Before Barber spoke, several hundred people gathered for a simple meal and small group conversations in the church’s fellowship hall.
Much like King, who named the triple evils of racism, militarism and poverty, Barber called out four interlocking evils — systemic racism, the war economy, poverty, ecological violence — that conspire to keep poor people poor.
Lest the public believe the country’s moral narrative was warped mostly by the latest occupant of the White House, Barber corrected the record.
“If you go back and track the last four presidential cycles, even with President Obama, there was not in any of the debates one hour dedicated to poverty,” he said to groans. “Not one hour dedicated to systemic racism… Our whole moral narrative is sick.”
King called for a “true revolution of values” and spoke of America the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” Barber recalled. Yet corporations misremember King as a pussycat and not a lion, investing in a sanitized version of a radical dreamer.
“They don’t mind sponsoring your King breakfast today if you stay with ‘I Have a Dream,’” Barber said, but not if you talk about what King came to Memphis for.
His critique extended to clergy and people of faith who are fond of preaching but not the personal sacrifice required in social justice movements.
“A lot of folks mimic Dr. King — they can whoop — but they ain’t going to jail… Dead prophets make convenient heroes,” he said.
“You can’t follow King or Jesus if you’re scared,” Barber said. “They only crucify revolutionaries… Only revolutionaries who challenge injustice get crucified, get arrested.”
“Maybe that’s why the police aren’t coming into any of our churches because they’re no longer scared that the followers of Jesus are in town. We need a moral revolution.”
Using holy texts, including the Bible and the Qur’an, Barber laid out the theological case for economic justice, noting all the scriptural commands to care for the poor and to pay workers a fair wage.
“That’s why it is a sin before God for an imam or a rabbi or a preacher to ask your people to tithe, and you’re not out there fighting for them to get some more money.”
This new Poor People’s campaign is intersectional and inclusive with room for the LGBTQ community, too.
Where more diplomatic preachers may have tiptoed, Barber barged headfirst into the homophobia all too common in the traditional black church, a noxious belief that creates odd bedfellows between white conservatives and otherwise black progressives.
“You think the Lord made a mistake with 20 percent of the world’s population?” Barber asked. “I’m so tired of this crazy issue where people want to get up in folks’ bedrooms. That’s a fetish. That ain’t faith.”
“If you want to talk about sex, let’s talk about sex. Let’s talk about the illicit backroom sex between the Supreme Court and big business that produced the bastard child of Citizens United,” he said, referring to the 2010 high court decision that allowed unlimited political campaign spending by corporations.
And he had some advice on the rise of white nationalists and white supremacists, who exist far outside the realm of Richard Spencer and the other racists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia.
White supremacy, Barber cautioned, takes the form of public policy. It looks like underfunded public schools, a weakened social safety net, environmental racism, poverty wages and rampant voter suppression.
“The real hacking of our elections didn’t start with Russia. The real hacking of our elections started with racialized voter suppression,” he said.
As he closed, Barber invited faith leaders, union organizers, Fight for $15 organizers and others to share the pulpit with him. Copies of a pledge form to join the Poor People’s Campaign circulated through the audience and dozens, if not hundreds, of people filled them out and placed them on the altar.
“We will not settle for less than God’s justice,” Barber said.
Barber mused out loud about what the campaign might do, including simultaneous disruptions across the country for 40 days, starting next spring.
Besides asking for the pledger’s name and email address, the forms asked this: “I am willing to take direct action including civil disobedience.”
Where do we go from here?
Learn more about the MLK50 clergy committee’s events planned through the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination April 4.
Read about Barber’s moral movement in The Washington Post.
Sign up to join Repairers of the Breach’s Poor People’s Campaign.
Watch Barber speak at Riverside Church in New York City, where King preached a year before his death.
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.