William Barber Takes on Poverty and Race in the Age of Trump

tags: poverty, Race, Trump, William Barber

Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.”

At first glance, the crowds of people congregating on a block of Mulberry Street, a stretch of squat brick buildings near downtown Memphis, on the morning of April 4th, might have been there for a variety of reasons. The street venders selling T-shirts and posters and the jumbotron set up near a parking lot suggested the start of a music festival; delegations of men and women dressed in their union best pointed to a labor rally. But the plaintive notes of gospel music drifting from speakers and the black bunting draped over a balcony of the building at the center of the activities indicated a more sombre occasion. The space behind the bunting had begun as an overlook, became a crime scene, and is now a historic site. The hundreds of people, most but by no means all of them black, were gathering at the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum, to mark the moment when, fifty years earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated as he stood on the balcony outside Room 306. The past five years have been a season of semicentennials: 2013, 2014, and 2015 brought anniversaries of the triumphs of the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. This year recalls losses: King’s death and, with it, the hopes of a signal phase of the civil-rights struggle.

All this added to the anticipation surrounding one of the final speakers of the day. The Reverend Dr. William Barber, a pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, in Goldsboro, North Carolina, has become, in the past few years, an indispensable figure in the civil-rights landscape, and, perhaps, the individual most capable of crafting a broad-based political counterpoint to the divisiveness of Trumpism. Charismatic, tireless, eloquent, and yet resistant to an excessive nostalgia for the glory days of the movement, he has presence. At around five o’clock, he came out on the balcony. A tall, heavyset, handsome man with the kind of face that people describe as being “of indeterminate age”—he is fifty-four—Barber was dressed in a black suit, a magenta shirt with a clergyman’s collar, and a white clerical stole that read, “Jesus Was a Poor Man.” He has an ursine bearing, and moves methodically, which gave the applause a moment to build.

Allotted just five minutes to speak, Barber began by addressing not King’s victories but the burdens that he bore. “The weight of these years, by the time he got to Memphis, to stand with black men who were organizing a garbage strike, were heavy,” Barber said. “By the time he got to Memphis, he had racists, moderates, politicians, a President, and even jealous criticism from black leaders, who used his position against the Vietnam War as an excuse to diminish his status in the eyes of liberal white America, while raising their own. And then the bullet rang. And his body fell.” But what was more important than mourning King’s suffering, Barber said, was honoring the work that he undertook in the last months of his life: confronting racism, to be sure, but also militarism and poverty.

Barber speaks in a resonant baritone, with precise phrasing, but he is a true thespian of the pulpit: his eyes widen in mock surprise or squint in faux confusion at an act of outrage or injustice. Sometimes, after making a point, he whirls around, looking over his shoulder as if to see whether anyone has overheard him. From the balcony, he boomed, “We don’t need a commemoration, we need a reconsecration.” He had blown past the five-minute mark, but the crowd was with him. He warned, “The Bible says woe unto those who love the tombs of the prophets.” The duty of the living, he said, is not simply to recall the martyrs of the movement but to continue their work. “We’ve got to hold up the banner until every person has health care, we’ve got to hold it up until every child is lifted in love, we’ve got to hold it up until every job is a living-wage job, until every person in poverty has guaranteed subsistence.” He finished to loud and sustained applause. Shortly afterward, at a minute past six, the time that King was shot, an enormous bell in the motel courtyard rang thirty-nine times—once for each year of King’s life—and the crowd on Mulberry Street began to disperse. 

Speeches, some of them from associates of King’s, went on all day. James Lawson, who, at eighty-nine, is nearly as dynamic as he was when he helped organize the Freedom Rides of 1961, spoke about the landmark strike of black sanitation workers, called in Memphis in early 1968 to protest unsafe work conditions and unequal pay. It was Lawson who had invited King to Memphis, to lend his support. (A sanitation worker at the commemoration who had travelled with a group from New York City told me that it was important to reclaim King’s connections to organized labor.) Jesse Jackson, who was with King when he was shot, movingly recounted the final moments of his life. Gina Belafonte, the daughter of King’s close friend Harry Belafonte, runs Sankofa, an organization that connects the arts with activism, and she spoke about the imperatives of culture in the service of social change. But the day was warm, and, by the afternoon, the crowd was beginning to grow restless. As with any rite that is repeated at regular intervals, even for an event so consequential, the speeches began to seem rote. The comparisons between the past and the present and the inevitable declarations that we still have “so far to go,” which tend to reinforce how creative and distinctive those monumental events of the past were, sometimes raised the dispiriting question of whether anything being done in the present would warrant such celebration in the future. ...

Read entire article at The New Yorker

comments powered by Disqus