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Rev. Dr. William Barber: Tens of millions of low wage voters will spark a "moral resurrection"

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Bob Hennelly
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Reverend Dr. William Barber of the Poor People's Campaign joins students outside Princeton University's Chapel on September 17

On Sept. 17, at Princeton University’s Chapel Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, delivered the keynote address entitled “A New Heaven, A New Earth: Beyond Poverty” for The World Student Christian Federation-US, part of a global network of over 100 student movements around the world organizing a movement of Christian students in the US.

Rev. Barber delivered the homily at President Biden’s Inaugural Prayer Service at Washington’s National Cathedral. In the last two years he has expressed disappointment that the White House and Democratically controlled Congress has not been able to raise the $7.25 minimum wage nor make permanent the Expanded Child Tax Credit which for the half year it was in effect lifted millions of children out of poverty.

WBGO's Bob Hennelly attended the keynote address event and conducted this interview with Rev. Dr. Barber afterward.

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Bob Hennelly
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WBGO reporter Bob Hennelly with Rev. Dr. William Barber of the Poor People's Campaign

Hennelly: We are having an election here in New Jersey and around the country. In 2021, you had a national study done of voters and you found that in New Jersey alone, some 400,000 low wage and low wealth voters were registered to vote but did not go to the polls in 2020. How would you counsel people that want these people to turn out? Could you give them a coaching session so they can be successful going door to door in communities where folks did not vote?

Rev. Barber: It’s waking a sleeping giant with that study from the Kairos Center and Repairers of the Breach/Poor People’s Campaign. I was talking to Shailly Barnes and I said we need to look at this—we had touched two million people in 2020 and we know that Biden got 53 percent of the poor and low wealth vote, What we found were three things; number one, don’t go into these communities and say you just need to vote—say we honor you—because we respect that some of them have not voted because they never heard anybody call their name. Politicians don’t talk about them most of the time. They talk about the middle class, the upper class or those desiring the American Dream. But we need to say the word [poor].

If you look at the number of poor people—52 million without a living wage—140 million [overall in the country]—you have to talk to them as human beings. Second of all,  say to them I am not here to ask you to vote, I am here for you to join a movement that says there’s something wrong with our policies that this many people can be left disinherited. Thirdly, I am asking you to believe that democracy is not just an idea, but democracy and justice are on the ballot. 

So, who you are going to elect is going to determine healthcare. It is going to determine if you can push them to do the right thing because if people who get elected who tell you upfront, ‘don’t come to me about a living wage, don’t even talk to me’ then you don’t have a real chance with them. And lastly, let people know how much power they have. There is not a battleground state where the presidential election has been decided within three percentage points that poor and low wealth people don’t make up 45 percent of the electorate.  There’s not a state in the country where poor and low wealth people don’t make-up 33 percent of the electorate. In my state North Carolina, it wouldn’t take 19 percent, which is right around 120,000 of the 600,000 poor and low wealth people who didn’t vote [to make a difference].

Hennelly: Is it overstating it to say that we have Senators Ossoff and Warnock because of the turnout [of low wage and low wealth voters]?

Rev. Barber: Sure. What we found in that study was that if you looked at the numbers, they turned out because they and the President were running on living wages. That’s why politicians can’t go back—politicians hear me today—you can’t stop now talking about a living wages and voting rights today.  That’s what people heard. Yes, we have done some things on climate change—historic things—great. Yes, we have done some things with Medicare now and pricing on the drugs, great. But you can’t dismiss what was left off, voting rights and a living wage. You have to at least tell people ‘give us the kind of majority where we can’t be overturned easily and we will deal with that—we will deal with the filibuster. We will living wage. That’s how Warnock and them won. We touched about 200,000 people in Georgia and then we went back and looked at how they voted ands where they voted and a large percentage of them who had not voted before—[this time] they voted for an agenda.”

Hennelly: So, you just don’t come and tell somebody—you have to come with your heart and ears open and ask what’s hurting them—how has the system failed them—you have to get involved in a deeper conversation?

Rev. Barber: If there are 85 million low income voters in this country and 58 million voted in the last election, the highest turnout in recent years—what’s that 27 million people [did not vote]. You don’t say 27 million people are stupid or 27 million people are uninformed or 27 million don’t have consciousness. They have had some legitimate reason and it may not be your reason, but we already know what the reasons are—and we have to hear that and let those people know what their power is.

For the politicians they need to go and apologize sometimes. Look at these campaigns we are running now. Tell me one state where there’s been a debate talking about what they are going to do about poverty—even in the presidential race it didn’t happen….Every problem we face, poverty, lack of healthcare, lack of a living wage, are created by policy. They can be changed by policy and poor and low wealth people hold the power to put people in office that can make a difference.

Hennelly: I was speaking with George Gresham, who leads 1199 SEIU East and he has taken an heroic stand for universal healthcare. I was just in Trenton at a rally where public workers and healthcare workers involved with fighting the pandemic were protesting a 20 to 24 percent increase in their healthcare premiums which would do away with whatever wage increase they got. Why are we dodging this issue? Why don’t we hear about universal healthcare in this election campaign?

Rev. Barber: Too many of these consultants, especially Democratic consultants try to find one issue. They say now we can just focus on Jan. 6 or rolling back Roe. What you have to do is connect that the same people that did Jan. 6, rolled back Roe, also block living wages also block healthcare—also block voting rights. 

Connect the dots. Don’t disconnect the dots. 

But we also have this group called moderates on both sides and they believe more in order than reordering society. We have universal Congressional healthcare because every Congress member and Senator gets healthcare. The minute they get elected—it’s universal and we pay for it. So, we are the only country of the 25 wealthiest countries in the world that does not offer some form of universal healthcare. In essence, we say in America your healthcare is connected to your job and not your body. That’s immoral, particularly to me as a Christian. My healthcare should be connected to my body. I never saw Jesus charge a co-pay. I never saw  Jesus say I will heal you of leprosy—but wait a minute I got to get something from you first. 

We have to have a retooling of the narrative but it is only going to happen if poor and low wage people do it. That’s why we organizing poor and low wealth people, advocates and religious leaders because we have to be the ones to reshape the moral narrative.

Hennelly: This seems to be happening in workplace like the Dollar Store, Chipotle.

Rev. Barber: Oh my—the poorest workers are organizing like never before. There is something happening in this country and I am glad of it because I am going to tell you there is a flip side, Poor and low wealth people realize  addressing these interlocking issues like systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, denial of healthcare the war economy are all critical to the soul of the nation and if people are ever to stop believing the nation has a soul that’s the breeding ground for demagogues—autocrats—that’s how Hitlers, Putins and other folks get into office. That’s not healthy ground. We saw Jan. 6th. I don’t want to ever see 140 million. poor and low wealth people in this country lose hope and start operating from a place of despair.

Hennelly: You mentioned the tribulation of the pandemic. Government and businesses failed to protect the people and is it possible we are looking around after this tribulation and our families and immediate households are in a higher position in our hearts because it’s all we had to get us through the pandemic?

Rev. Barber: That is all we ever had. It’s all we ever had but the pandemic forced us to realize that our breath is not promised to us, that all of us have six minutes and all of our loved ones have six minutes, I have had to wrestle with that I have an immunodeficiency. Why am I not dead? Other people around me have died. I am not here because I am better than those people. I am here, because the spirit says to me the question is not why am I still here, but what am I going to do while I am still here.

And we watched a million  people die and we have not had a month of mourning—not one month. Think about that. Some people are starting to say, wait a minute, I have to restore some sense of caring, because something is wrong here when billionaires can make two trillion dollars and poor people can’t even get a living wage or healthcare, or paid family leave  or healthcare in the middle of a pandemic.

That’s a brokenness and that is only going to be changed when poor—low wealth people, religious leaders and advocates start activating that song we sing “Make Them Hear You”. It’s an old song that comes from a Broadway play. It says make them hear you, not with hatred, not with insurrection but with moral resurrection. That’s why people are saying we are not going to be silent. You are going to see our faces. You are going to hear our voice and you are going to feel our votes. 

Doug Doyle has been News Director at WBGO since 1998 and has taken his department to new heights in coverage and recognition. Doug and his staff have received more than 200 awards from organizations like PRNDI, AP, New York Association of Black Journalists, Garden State Association of Black Journalists and the New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists.