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Rev. Barber & Ex-Page to Segregationist Strom Thurmond Unite to Launch New Poor People’s Campaign

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As the nation prepares to mark Martin Luther King Day next week, modern day civil rights leaders have launched a new Poor People’s Campaign, inspired by the historic 1968 action led by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In the coming months, organizers are planning six weeks of direct action at statehouses across the country and the U.S. Capitol to call attention to systemic racism, poverty, the war economy and ecological devastation. For more, we speak with Reverend William Barber, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach. He’s the leader of Moral Mondays and the author of “Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement.” We also speak with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, evangelical minister and director of the School for Conversion in Durham, North Carolina. He is author of the upcoming book, “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.” Wilson-Hartgrove grew up as a white Southern Baptist, and he served as a page for the late South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, a fierce foe of the civil rights movement and supporter of segregation. Wilson-Hartgrove’s political transformation began after hearing William Barber preach.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. As the nation prepares to mark Martin Luther King Day next Monday, modern day civil rights leaders have launched a new Poor People’s Campaign, inspired by the historic 1968 action, 50 years ago, led by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

REV. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity. But there is another America. And this other America has a daily ugliness about it that transforms ebulliency of hope into the fatigue of despair. In this other America, millions of people find themselves walking the streets in search for jobs that do not exist.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. Martin Luther King, speaking about the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. In the coming months, organizers are planning six weeks of direct action at statehouses across the country and the U.S. Capitol to call attention to systemic racism, poverty, the war economy and ecological devastation.

We’re joined by two of the organizers of the campaign. Reverend Dr. William Barber, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, leader of the Moral Mondays and author of Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement. We’re also joined by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, an evangelical minister and director of the School for Conversion in Durham, North Carolina. He’s author of the upcoming book, Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion. While the two men have organized together for years, they were not always in political agreement. Barber grew up in the black-led freedom movement. Wilson-Hartgrove grew up as a white Southern Baptist, served as a page for the late South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, a fierce foe of the civil rights movement, a supporter of segregation. Wilson-Hartgrove’s political transition began after hearing Reverend Barber preach.

Well, we welcome you both to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Barber, talk about the significance of Dr. King Day and your launch of the Poor People’s March, 50 days [sic] after his—50 years after his.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Fifty years. Well, thank you so much, Amy. In January, on the 5th of January, we actually launched, after traveling to 15 states, doing regional trainings, organizing a thousand people in 25 states, District of Columbia, that have committed to do direct action civil disobedience training, preparing for voter registration, to launch a movement. We have black, we have white, we have brown, young, old, gay, straight, Jewish, Muslim, Christians, people of faith, people not of faith, who are coming together, 50 years later, Amy. And one of the things we’re doing is we’re writing something called “The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America 50 Years Later.” IPS, Institute for Policy Studies, is helping with activists, and impact the people.

AMY GOODMAN: Referencing W.E.B. Du Bois’s book.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: W.E.B. Du Bois, that’s right. And to talk about the souls of poor folk, because so often the poor are just dismissed. Both parties, we don’t even talk about the poor. We talk middle class, working class, not the poor.

So, 50 years later, we have 30—we have nearly 100 million poor and working poor people in this country, 14 million poor children. Fifty years later, we have less voting rights protection than we had on August 6, 1965. Fifty years later, Strom Thurmond, for instance, filibustered the Voting—filibustered the Civil Rights Act of ’57 for a day. Ryan, McConnell and Boehner have filibustered fixing the Voting Rights Act now for over four years, over 1,700 days. We have tremendous ecological devastation.

And when we look at, for instance, systemic voter suppression and you map it—we’ve done some maps—every state where there’s high voter suppression is also high poverty, denial of healthcare, denial of living wages, denial of labor union rights, attacks on immigrants, attacks on women. So, it’s the same states. And what’s happening, this is not for the poor. It’s with the poor. And it’s launching a multi-year campaign, that we’re beginning now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, about your life story. I mean, for young people, they may not have even heard of Strom Thurmond, one of the longest-serving senators in U.S. history, also ran for president—


AMY GOODMAN: —on a segregationist platform. What was your involvement with him?

JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE: Well, that was 1948. And I was born in 1980, so I wasn’t, you know, very aware of that, either, growing up. I grew up in a Southern Baptist culture that told us, you know, if you’re faithful, you’re Republican. And I wanted to do all that I could for Jesus, so I was trying to make it to the White House. And Jesse Helms referred me to Strom Thurmond, and that’s how I ended up in his office.

But when I got there, I began to realize that something wasn’t quite right, in terms of these values that I was taught of love and justice and concern for the community, and what was happening there, which was really about holding onto power. And I began to realize, you know, what Reverend Barber was saying, that my people in North Carolina and in the South had really been duped, that we—that we were told that this was good for us and good for America and good for the world, and, as a matter of fact, that they were using religion to serve this white supremacist agenda, that really wasn’t very different from what he had advocated in ’48 or in the ’50s and the ’60s, but had changed its language a bit.

And so, I was very grateful for Reverend Barber teaching me that freedom movement history, beginning to realize that there really has been a movement that has pushed for an inclusive democracy in this country since the 19th century and that that effort to reconstruct this country is also very faith-rooted—and we connected because of our faith—and beginning to realize that there were some faith leaders who were using that faith to serve the agenda of this, really, white supremacy campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you understand this when you were a page for Senator Thurmond?

JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE: No, I was very confused. That’s why I needed a teacher like Dr. Barber here.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you ever confront Senator Thurmond as you came to understand and believe in a different path?

JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE: No. He was in his nineties and, I don’t think, was very open to confrontation. The only serious conversation he ever had with me was telling me, when I got to D.C. as a 16-year-old young white man from North Carolina, that I ought to be careful, because this is a dangerous town. See, that’s the way race was talked about in that movement. Still is.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me play a clip of your senator, Senator Strom Thurmond, speaking in 1948, when he ran for president as a nominee of the pro-segregationist, states’ rights Democratic Party, more popularly known as the Dixiecrats. Thurmond spoke out against Harry Truman’s civil rights platform at the time.

SEN. STROM THURMOND: It simply means that it’s another effort on the part of this president to dominate the country by force and to put into effect these uncalled-for and these damnable proposals he has recommended under the guise of so-called civil rights. And I’ll tell you, the American people, from one side or the other, had better wake up and oppose such a program! And if they don’t, the next thing will be a totalitarian state in these United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Needless to say, he didn’t win in 1948. But that philosophy of segregation carried on. As you watched what happened in Virginia, in Charlottesville, this past summer, did you see the echoes of Strom Thurmond, as the self-proclaimed fascists, the self-proclaimed white supremacists marched across the university?

JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE: Absolutely, because if you listen to something like that, as somebody who grew up in the church, you realize that what he’s doing there is preaching. He’s preaching in the public square. And that’s what folks like Richard Spencer are trying to do. They’re trying to bring a vision for—

AMY GOODMAN: Who organized that march.

JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE: Right—for what they want the world to be into the public square, and they’re using religion to do it. And so, I had to learn that whiteness is a religion that people are sold on, and that someone like me, who wants to follow Jesus, needs to be converted, needs to be converted from the religion of whiteness to the religion of Jesus, or many other traditions that are willing to embrace a kind of universal humanity that whiteness can’t embrace.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do your compatriots respond to your gospel, to what you preach now as a minister?

JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE: Well, you know, I think a lot of times when it’s framed as something against what people are doing, they react. Right? Everyone is defensive when you attack what they are. But when you hold forth the invitation to be part of something? You know, this Poor People’s Campaign that we’re talking about now is a movement that is for everyone. You know, Sister Mashyla, who was with us in D.C., came from Washington. She said—she said, “I’m the white trash that they threw out and forgot to burn. But I’m glad to be part of a movement that includes me,” right? And I’m part of that movement, too.

So, I think the constructive vision of the movement is an invitation that many people are beginning to respond to, because they—you know, if you’re a poor person in North Carolina or Alabama, what you have to realize at the end of the day is that these people who say, “Vote for me because I’m a good Christian leader,” are not serving your interests. You don’t have healthcare, you don’t have a living wage, because the same people who say they’re standing up for God and righteousness are, when they’re voting, voting against the interests of poor people, whether you’re black, white, brown or whatever.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you something. In the Roy Moore race, yes, he was defeated, but as someone tweeted out that night, when it was even closer, on December 12th, “If we can beat a pedophile by 0.8 percent, we can do anything.” That was the tweet. And, Reverend Barber, “If we can beat a pedophile by 0.8 percent, we can do anything,” you know, obviously, a sarcastic comment. How could it possibly have been that close? And now we see the home of Tina Johnson burned to the ground in Alabama, as people raise money for her, one of Roy Moore’s accusers.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, Amy, I think Jonathan hit on something. And that is, it is important for us to remember that the movement for justice has always been biracial. Abolition movement was biracial. Civil rights movement was biracial, triracial sometimes. The first Poor People’s Campaign was not just Dr. King. It was Cesar Chavez. It was Jewish. It was the welfare workers, rights workers. It was Al McSurely, who had organized up in Kentucky.

In some sense, we lost that sense of fusion politics, and that’s what Moral Monday has been about. That’s what this Poor People’s Campaign is about. Not only can we beat a pedophile, the reality is, if we focus on policy—we went to Alabama, and they said we couldn’t organize white ministers to stand up against Roy Moore, not about what he had allegedly done to children, but his policies. And we did—65 percent of the people who got arrested on Moral Monday were white—on policy, saying—

AMY GOODMAN: The Moral Mondays meaning in North Carolina, where you are.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: In North Carolina, that’s right, where we were, that I am now. What we’re saying is: Do you have healthcare? You know, when all the Southern states denied healthcare, the people who got elected by voter suppression then used that power to deny healthcare, the majority of the people that are being denied are white. When you don’t have a living wage, the majority of the people that are being affected are white, in raw numbers. There are 8 million more white people poor than there are African-American. We have got to show how people are being played.

And you can’t always look just at a Charlottesville or Strom Thurmond. Remember, they changed that language after '68. See, Kevin Phillips said, “We can't talk like that anymore. What we’re going to talk about now is tax cuts and entitlement cuts and forced busing.” That’s the language of the Southern strategy. It changed, but it was the language—it was coded language to say, number one, this is what needs to change for your life to be better. The policies are going to hurt mostly black people and brown people, in a percentage basis, but it’s also going to make people think that black people are the problem. That’s why Trump went to an all-white audience and then talked about black people. You know, what do they have to lose?

One of the things I think we’ve got to—that’s why this movement, we’re saying, we need a Poor People’s Campaign, a national call for a moral revival. We need to reshift the moral narrative. For instance, in this week, King week, I’ve been looking at how people are focusing now on Trump’s, quote-unquote, “mental status.” I think that’s the wrong thing. I mean, I have my own opinions about that. But Dr. King talked about America being sick. See, we’re talking about an individual. We should be examining that tax policy. We should be going down the list, every media station, and looking at how are these policies that these senators and others passed impacting the poor—even the Democrats didn’t talk much about the poor—in those states. We should be talking about the judges he’s trying to put on the—quietly, like the one out of North Carolina, Tom Farr, he’s trying to put on the bench. But the senators are helping; he’s not doing this stuff by himself. If we get fixated on a person, rather than do what Dr. King said, examine the societal moral crisis that creates characters like a Trump, all right, that empowers them, then we’re really in trouble. And we have to deal with the sickness of the society.

Dr. King said, lastly, any society that puts more money in war than it does in social uplift is headed toward spiritual death. When we have an exacerbation of racist voter racism—systemic racism through voter suppression, we have extreme poverty, we have ecological devastation and a war economy and a mixed-up moral narrative, where people can literally run for office, Amy, and look you in the face—”If you elect me, I’m going to take your healthcare”—and get elected—”If you elect me, I’m going to be a racist. If you elect me, I’m going to put hundreds of thousands of people out of the country. If you elect me, I’m going to attack 800,000 students, DACA students. If you”—and say that boldly, we have more than a personality problem. We have a moral crisis. And the only thing that can combat that is a movement that challenges that crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. You’re listening to the Reverend Dr. William Barber of Repairers of the Breach, up from North Carolina, and minister Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of the School for Conversion in North Carolina. This is Democracy Now! They’re starting a Poor People’s March, 50 years after Dr. King’s. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Wavin’ Flag” by K’naan, performing here in our Democracy Now! studios back in 2010.

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