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Civil Rights Activist Weighs In On Biden's Early Days In Office

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, it's been less than two weeks since the Biden administration took office, and it has already been a whirlwind. The president has signed more than two dozen executive orders addressing everything from immigration to climate change, as well as one of the issues he says propelled him to run for the presidency for this third time, racial justice.

So we thought this would be a good time to check in with civil rights activist, the Reverend William Barber II. He was invited to offer the homily at the inaugural prayer service. The text came from the prophet Isaiah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REVEREND WILLIAM BARBER II: And so the prophet gives the nation God's clear guidance out of the jam it is in. Choose first to repent of the policy sin, and then repair the breach. The breach, according to the imagery of Isaiah, is when there is a gap in the nation between what is and how God wants things to be.

MARTIN: It was both an affirming message but also a call to action, so we wanted to hear Reverend Barber's take on what that should look like. To remind, he is the president of an organization called Repairers of the Breach, which is based in Goldsboro, N.C. He's a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius grant, and the co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign. And he is with us once again.

Reverend Barber, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.

BARBER: Thank you so much for having me on today.

MARTIN: What gave you the inspiration for the sermon?

BARBER: Well, I was asked to deliver it, and that was quite a humbling request. And then they asked me, did I know much about Isaiah 58? And, of course, that is one of the major passages of scripture recognized by Jews, Muslims and Christians especially. It is a scripture specifically speaking to the nation about how to repair itself after it has been through lying leadership, extreme leadership, mean-spirited leadership, oppressive leadership. And it really gives a step-by-step what has to be done.

MARTIN: Well, to - you know, to that point, I mean, the president in - President Biden in running for office and certainly at his inaugural message has been stressing a message of unity. And during your homily, you spoke of unity. I mean, you said the breach would be knowing the only way to ensure domestic tranquility is to establish justice, but pretending we can address the nation's wounds with simplistic calls for unity. Can you expand on what you're saying here?

BARBER: Well, surely. You know, one of the things I think more than just being a civil rights activist, I'm trying my best with others to be, you know, a moral leader, one who looks at things through the lens of moral analysis, moral articulation and moral activism. And you can't have a simplistic view that all we need is "Kumbaya." All we need to do is slap back - is pat each other on the back. No, no, no, no. There are real forces - and we have seen them - forces that we saw that would rather put a person on the Supreme Court than protect people from dying in caskets from COVID, forces that would rather give trillions of dollars - trillions - to corporations during COVID while billionaires make almost a trillion dollars and then fight to just give a few trillion to poor and low-wealth people and those who are hurting. These are real battles. And some people are not going to unite with justice. But if enough of us can unite with justice and love, we can move this country forward.

MARTIN: But I am interested in how you feel that happens when some have made it abundantly clear that they do not agree with this agenda. I mean, for example, I mean, your first, as I - you announced on Twitter that beginning tomorrow, the Poor People's Campaign will be holding special Moral Mondays events. Your first event will center on increasing the minimum wage. Your group is calling for some very ambitious things like universal health care, limiting defense spending. I mean, the fact is that a significant number of people in this country don't agree with that. So how does he reconcile both the desire that some people clearly have for a more sort of temperate, more moderate, more constructive tone and yet people like yourself who say, no, there are ambitious things that need to happen? How does he resolve that?

BARBER: Now, yes, 70 million people voted for Trump, but over 80 million people voted for Biden and Harris. They knew they were going to pass - they were going to fight for living wages, addressing systemic racism and to address health care. Biden won 55% of all poor and low-wealth people voting under - that made under $50,000 a year. In Georgia and other places, poor and low-wealth people voted for Biden and Harris at a rate 14% higher.

We're talking about, how do we heal the soul of the South Side? And it's only by healing the sickness in the body. And so what we're talking about is a must - is a must. These things must happen, and when you have the power, even if you only have one vote - Republicans showed us something. They did it for the wrong reason, but they didn't care if they had just one vote. They did what was wrong. So people who have one vote now must do what is right.

MARTIN: I can't tell from listening to you whether you feel encouraged or you still feel frustrated.

BARBER: So I'm encouraged because the movement is encouraged. I'm encouraged because more people turned out to vote in the midst of COVID than ever turned out in the history of this country. I'm encouraged because 6 million more poor and low-wealth people turned out in this election than they did in 2016. I'm encouraged because this country has shown us that if you run on a progressive agenda, if you talk about health care, living wages and dealing with racism, you can win in California. You can win in Georgia. You can win in Pennsylvania. You can win all over this country if you give people a vision of progress for which they can vote.

I am discouraged on one thing, and it's - but it's going to come - that we still don't hear enough about poverty. We hear Democrats talking about the middle class and workers. But if 43% of this country was poor and low-wealth before COVID, and 8 million more have been thrust into poverty since May of last year, and if only 39% of this country can afford a thousand-dollar emergency, we must use the word poverty. We must talk about poor and low-wage people. We must say their name and say their condition. And we must say we're not going to lift from the middle up. We're not going to trickle down. We're going to lift from the bottom up.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, I want to acknowledge that, as you have acknowledged, that many people are still struggling because of the pandemic, because of the downturn. Obviously, some people - many people were struggling before that, but a lot of people are suffering right now. And this is something that you brought up in your homily. And I just wondered if you had some words of encouragement for people who are struggling.

BARBER: You know, as a pastor, I will tell you, in this season, sometimes I have not had words. I'll just be honest. All we've had is presence, even if it was distant presence. All we've had is love. All we've had is sometimes just getting on a video and crying together when people couldn't go visit their loved one. Sometimes that's all we've had.

You know, one of the things some of us have done is ask the question real seriously, why are we still alive? I mean, in this moment when any of us could be gone in seven days, seven minutes - you know, we could contract COVID. We could be breathing fine one minute, and it could all shut down - why is it that we're still alive? Or more importantly, what is it that we're going to do with the breath we have?

And some of us have decided in the midst of the tears, in the midst of the hurt, in the midst of the pain, we decided that breath is too important to waste. We don't have any breath to waste on being mean and hateful and unjust and hurting people. The only real use of our breath is to try to breathe some more love and truth and grace and justice into this world and in this society.

And so whether we live seven minutes, seven days, seven months, seven years or 70 years, that's what we're committing ourselves to do with every breath we take from now on because this moment has been a moment where we all have to face the potential of our own mortality in a very real way. We can end any moment, be alone on a breathing machine with nobody able to come and see us. And many people have died like that. And in their name and in their memory, even with our pain, we must use every breath we have to turn things around, to push our political system to do right from the bottom up, with every breath we have left until we have no more breath in us.

MARTIN: That was the Reverend William Barber II. He's president of Repairers of the Breach. He's co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign. Reverend Barber, thank you so much for joining us once again.

BARBER: Thank you so much. And blessings to you and your staff.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLAZO'S "MISTY SAPPHIRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.