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“There Must Be a Moral Shift”: Bishop Barber Calls on Democrats to Pass Voting Rights, Protect Poor

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Image Credit: Steve Pavey/Kairos Center/Poor People's Campaign

Senate Democratic leadership insists they will debate two critical voting rights bills even though Democratic Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have publicly denounced their party’s plan to make changes to Senate filibuster rules that would give Democrats the votes needed to pass the landmark legislation. Meanwhile, thousands marched in support of the legislation and the necessary filibuster rule changes in Washington, D.C., on Monday, the federal holiday marking Martin Luther King Jr. Day. We speak with movement leader William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, who criticizes the Democrats for bifurcating the Build Back Better economic legislation from voting rights and says movements must plan sustained, nonviolent direct action to ensure politicians pass legislation that benefits poor and low-wealth people.

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StoryJan 12, 2022Biden Backs Filibuster Reform to Pass Voting Rights Bills After Sustained Grassroots Pressure
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: After missing a deadline on a key rule change to pass voting rights legislation before the federal Martin Luther King holiday Monday, Senate Democrats say this is the week they’ll push through changes so they can vote on the House-approved Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, which is a bill that combines the Freedom to Vote Act and John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has vowed to use a procedural workaround and change the Senate rules to weaken the 60-vote threshold to pass the measure despite opposition from Republicans. But Senators Manchin and Sinema would have to end their objections to a filibuster carveout, which they indicated last week they would not. A vote on Senate rules could come as early as Wednesday.

On Monday, the family of Dr. Martin Luther King marched with thousands of others in Washington, D.C., to demand the Democratic Senators Manchin and Sinema drop their support for the Senate filibuster. This is Martin Luther King III.

MARTIN LUTHER KING III: Senators Sinema and Manchin also say if the bill doesn’t get bipartisan support, it shouldn’t pass. Well, the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenships to slaves in 1868, that didn’t have bipartisan support. Should formerly enslaved people have been denied citizenship, Senator Sinema? The 15th Amendment, that gave formerly enslaved people the right to vote in 1870, that didn’t have bipartisan support. Should former slaves have been denied the right to vote, Senator Manchin? In 1922, ’23 and ’24, some senators filibustered an anti-lynching bill that had passed in the House. Would Senator Manchin and Senator Sinema have supported blocking those bills, too?

I’m just applying their logic here and showing that it’s not logical at all. To them, the filibuster is sacred — except for when it’s not. In 2010, Senator Sinema supported the idea of using reconciliation to get around the filibuster and pass healthcare reform. Just last month, they both supported an exception to the filibuster to raise the debt ceiling. But they draw the line at protecting the rights of millions of voters. History will not remember them kindly.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Republicans are leading voter disenfranchisement efforts nationwide, with GOP-led state legislatures passing more than 30 laws restricting ballot access, and introducing at least 400 more.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., to join Dr. William Barber, Bishop William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach. On Saturday, Bishop Barber was awarded The King Center’s 2022 Beloved Community Award for Civic Leadership.

Bishop Barber, welcome back to Democracy Now! I also wanted to start off by asking how you’re feeling, as you announced you tested positive for coronavirus.

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, I’m doing much better. Thank you for asking. I’m quite bothered, though, by all of the people that can’t get free tests. And we still have not given people free insurance even in the midst of COVID. So, while I’m well, the nation is not well, the world is not well. And I want to thank you for having me on this morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you so much for joining us. This is a pivotal moment. If you can talk about the standoff in the U.S. Senate right now, not exactly between Republicans and Democrats, though you could ask why many Republicans are not supporting the voting rights legislation as they have in the past over and over again, but within the Democratic Party, with Senators Manchin and Sinema refusing to support a filibuster waiver, a carveout?

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, Amy, let me take a moment. You know, this past Friday, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival announced that we were going to, regardless of what happened, have a mass poor people’s, low-wage workers’ assembly, moral march on Washington and to the polls on June 18th, 2022. We are launching a tour, actually, announcement tomorrow, regardless of what happens. We’re going to engage in mass action, direct action, nonviolent action, not just for a day but for a declaration, to declare that there must be a moral shift in this country, that there must be a change in power. As Dr. King said, the real problem that we’ve always had with these issues of voting is the fear of the aristocracy of the masses of poor and low-wealth people, Black and white, coming together to vote in a way that fundamentally shifts the economic architecture of the nation. In fact, in 1967, Dr. King said, “We must also realize that the problems of racial injustice and economic injustice cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.”

So, first of all, we should have never decided to separate voting rights from economic justice. I was listening to your report a minute ago about what just came out about poverty. That was a fundamental mistake, I believe, on many activists’ part and on many Democrats’ part, to separate these out. We should have started saying we demand infrastructure of our democracy, which is voting, and infrastructure of investment in the lives of poor and low-wealth people.

The next thing is, we are intensifying that, but if we’re going to win this, we’ve got to, number one, say we can’t allow the government to set false deadlines. Our deadline is victory. We could have done this since 2013, when the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the middle of the Obama administration. We have to ask the question: Why hasn’t some of the intensity been before now? We have to ask the question: Yes, Manchin and Sinema, but why haven’t some groups, even some civil rights groups, pushed them hard in their own states before now? Who made the decision that we wait until now?

Yes, you challenge Sinema and Manchin, but there are other Democrats, moderates, that Dr. King once called the worst enemies to the civil rights movement, who also have been weak when it comes to ending the filibuster. Certainly the Republicans, and some Democrats, have not wanted to move the filibuster, other than Sinema. Why didn’t we make the connection, the fact that 45% of the electorate in battleground states are poor and low-wealth, 30% across the nation? So, regardless of what happens today, we have a lot of work to do. Sinema and Manchin are acting like James Calhoun in the 1850s, who said you had to protect minority rule. They’re not acting like Robert Byrd, because Robert Byrd actually hated this kind of filibuster.

We must, lastly, raise the question: Where’s the U.S. Chamber of Commerce? Why aren’t we criticizing them — all groups, civil rights organizations, everybody — because they are the ones that both are against living wages and against voting rights? And if we’re going to have a criticism and be like Dr. King, we have to go deep. What about the Koch brothers? What about the Americans for Prosperity?

And then, lastly, what do these bills actually do? I know they want to sell it as an end-all and be-all, but the new Freedom to Vote Act, which Manchin compromised down, what does it do? What doesn’t it do? One thing it does is it codifies voter ID for the first time in the history of the country — not saying it doesn’t do some good things. The other one, the Voting Rights Advancement Act, does it really cover states? How many states will be covered under preclearance? What’s the formula? One formula said that you had to have 15 cases adjudicated all the way through the Supreme Court. Well, how many states can even meet that formula right now? And will it grandfather and stop the gerrymandering that’s already happened? Was part of the game of Manchin and Sinema to delay all the way this year until bills got passed, so even now if they change, they would have actually won what they promised the Chamber of Commerce and others? These are heavy questions. And it’s great to come out today and yesterday and others, and we should, but we cannot allow the politicians to do politics by ceremonial day.

And lastly, the president — we’ve been begging the president and his handlers to meet with moral leaders, white and Black and Brown and Latino, and impacted people in the White House. To make this a Black issue is dangerous. It’s not just a Black issue. Fifty-five million people will lose their access to the polls they used in 2020, if we see — allow what’s going on to continue. It’s a democracy issue. Dr. King never framed this issue as just a Black issue. He always framed it as an economic issue and a race issue, and we should be doing the same.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Bishop Barber, I wanted to ask you — many would agree with you that even the current bills before — that will be voted on before the Senate have problems or weaknesses in terms of their defense of the Voting Rights Act, but it seems pretty certain that even these will be voted down. And the question is: What will then be the approach that the movement for voting rights should take? Clearly, it’s into the streets, but would you support some kind of a legislation that would take portions of these bills and at least get something passed before the next elections?

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, see, that’s the politicians’ decision. The movement’s decision is to demand what is right all the way, not part of our rights, some of our rights. It’s amazing to me that when it came to the corporations, they got everything they asked for. They wanted $4 or $5 trillion, they got $4 or $5 trillion. Billionaires made $2 trillion in the first 20 months of COVID and are growing. When it comes to issues like poverty and voting rights, number one, we bifurcate them in a way that the forces of oppression never bifurcate them. And then we keep compromising down, down, down, down, rather than fighting. And eventually, if we’re not careful, it would be tantamount to Frederick Douglass accepting a long weekend as an answer to slavery rather than emancipation and freedom.

So, what the movement is saying is, not only we’re going to the streets, but direct action, mobilization, and not for a day but for a season, until we’re going to massively engage in registering voters and pushing out voters in poor and low-wealth communities who can fundamentally shift the economic — I mean, the political realities of this country. We are going to put together a full agenda. We call it the Third Reconstruction agenda. We now have 45 coordinating committees, 2,500 clergy, 200 partners. We’ve been mobilizing and planning because we never were going to just accept what the politicians throw at us. The tail can’t wag the dog. It doesn’t work like that.

The reality is that when we talk about even the Build Back Better plan, Democrats should have never called that the most transformative. They should have said it was a step to attempt to respond to the fact that poor and low-wealth people were the ones hurt the most during COVID. These bills, once they get compromised, call it what it is. Think about it. We have allowed Manchin, Sinema and the Republicans to basically throw the memory of John Lewis away, throw the For the People Act, that he actually wrote, away. And Democrats should never have done that. We didn’t fight hard enough on the front end. Many groups agreed with this delay. Well, the movement is saying there’s going to be a moral reset.

And let’s do history. In 1852, the Dred Scott decision was passed. Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, they didn’t quit. They said they emboldened and intensified their agitation. When the 1957 Civil Rights Act was passed, the movement didn’t quit because it was so compromised; they began to push even the more. Right after the ’64 Civil Rights Act, then we began moving toward the ’65 Voting Rights Act. John Lewis, in fact, criticized the ’64 Voting Rights Act and exposed the weaknesses of it.

I don’t know where in the world we have come to in this country, particularly in activism, where we think that the politicians set the agenda; we just have to go along with it; we don’t criticize, or we don’t show the weaknesses of it; we don’t talk — that is wrong. You know, we cannot let the politicians — I don’t care what party — just say, “Here’s what you need, and this is the greatest thing you can have.” No, we want all our freedom, all our voting rights, all our economic prosperity, and we want it now. And we don’t know what can happen until we see the greatest, largest mass movement of poor and low-wealth people in this country ever in history. And that is what we’re moving towards, putting together and pushing out now.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Bishop Barber, I wanted to ask you — the point that you raised that it was a mistake to frame the voting rights legislation as a largely Black and Brown issue, yet you have millions and millions of white Americans who are not only still rallying behind Donald Trump but believing his false claims that the last election was stolen. How do you reach out to the masses of white working-class and poor people who really should have a strategic and interest — for their own interest, in the passage of voting rights?

BISHOP WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, let’s stop lying on poor and low-wealth people. Most of the people at January 6th were not poor and low-wealth. They were middle-class and up. The data shows that. The majority of poor and low-wealth people, 55%, voted for Biden-Harris. The majority of poor and low-wealth people don’t vote. And we did a study with Columbia University, and they asked why didn’t they vote. They said, “Because nobody talks about poverty and the issues that are really facing us, and even voter suppression.” So, the majority of poor and low-wealth people have not voted. We did a study that showed, in 15 states, if between 1% and 24% of poor and low-wealth voters who were already registered were to vote, who haven’t been voting, would vote around an agenda for their uplift, it would fundamentally shift the electorate. As you heard me say earlier, poor and low-wealth people represent 45% of the electorate in states where the decision for president or Senate was less than 3%.

There is — Dr. King knew it, that these masses are always out there. I’m tired of folks saying that they’re not there. Dr. King said it’s the aristocracy that knew they were out there, knew they could be unified, and that’s why billions of dollars has been spent to divide us. And every time we get up and we try to frame this as just a Black issue, like voting rights is a special interest issue for Black people rather than an attack on the democracy that includes racism, that includes classism, that has impact based on region. And when we don’t connect the fact that the same person that’s suppressing the vote — also, Joe Manchin suppressed, for instance, passing the living wage in February, raising it to $15. He should have been called out then — we did; many others didn’t, they should have — that that was a racist vote, because when he blocked $15 and a union, not only did he block 31 million Americans from moving out of poverty and low wealth, he blocked 41% of African Americans from moving out of poverty and low wealth.

Dr. King never separated these issues. He said triune: poverty, militarism and racism. Today we say systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism and the denial of healthcare, which is why we have to have massive public education of what’s really going on, because we’ve been lied to so much. We have to have a unified coalition of Black and Brown and white and young and old and gay and straight and Native and Asian. And it’s possible, that we do not have a scarcity of resources or a scarcity of ideas; we have a scarcity of moral consciousness. We have to see the religious community come together.

And they are ready. I’m telling you, when we made the announcement on Friday, they said, regardless of what happened — we’ve been building for three years underneath, putting things together — it is time for that body of people to come together that the greedy, profit-driven aristocracy fears the most, and that is the masses of poor and low-wealth people and moral leaders coming together to reset — and not just for a day. June 22 is not just a day, it’s a declaration; not just a moment, it’s a movement. It’s going to be a season, not a day. We need a season, if it takes a whole year or two years, of action and conscience changing and in the streets and nonviolent direct action and major public education and movement to the people to the polls. That’s what has to happen. And people can’t tell me what can’t happen, because they haven’t tried that. We’ve been too bifurcated, too separated. We’ve allowed politicians to do policies by ceremony and ceremonial days. That is not movement. And we must not allow that to be the end.

And so, I want to, finally, quote what Frederick Douglass said when he was asked one month after the Dred Scott decision and he was told the abolition movement was over, nothing they could do. He said, “What I do know is that the Supreme Court of man can never overrule the Supreme Court of God. What I do know is that this decision, as monstrous as it is, may just be the necessary link in the chain of events to the downfall of the whole system of slavery, because what I know is every attempt to allay and stop the abolition movement has only served to embolden and intensify its agitation.” That’s what we must have now, and it must be Black and white and Brown and Asian and Native and young and old and gay and straight and Jewish and Christian and Muslim and people of faith and people not of faith and Appalachia and Delta of this country, in California to Carolinas, working together.

AMY GOODMAN: Bishop William Barber, we want to thank you for being with us, and we will certainly continue to follow this movement. Bishop Barber is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach. Reverend Barber was just awarded The King Center’s 2022 Beloved Community Award for Civic Leadership this weekend.

Next up, we go to Texas, where an armed gunman took four hostages at a synagogue outside Dallas Saturday, sparking an 11-hour standoff. We’ll speak to a Dallas rabbi. Stay with us.

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