Rev Dr. William J. Barber II

Rev Dr. William J. Barber II, speaking to a congregation gathered at Binghamton’s United Presbyterian Church last weekend.

Calling for a “moral revival,” the orator and activist Rev Dr. William J. Barber II urged about 500 people to join a national campaign of civil disobedience in Binghamton last Tuesday night. The multiracial, multigenerational crowd, which packed Binghamton’s United Presbyterian Church and included many from Ithaca, couldn’t wait to get started.

Barber was making a stop on a 15-city national tour to organize 40 days of coordinated direct action around the country next spring.  The “Poor People’s Campaign” has progressive political goals, but its organizers say that its ambitions and tactics go far beyond politics.  

“Paying a living wage, guaranteeing a basic income and universal health care, challenging the war economy, healing the planet, insisting on equal justice under the law−these are moral issues, and this is a movement for moral revival,” Barber said.  “It’s time for action in the public square.”

Many in the audience looked like they were old enough to remember the original Poor People’s Campaign. Jeff Furman, Sara Hess, Don Barber, Laura Branca, Kirby Edmonds, Nancy Bereano, and other long-time Ithaca activists who knew Barber by his reputation made the drive to see him in person. The Rev. Emily McNeill, director of the statewide Labor-Religion Coalition that sponsored a day-long workshop following the event, is a 2008 graduate of Ithaca College.  Her colleague Alicia Swords, professor of sociology at IC, has been connected to the Kairos Center, which co-chairs the campaign, for the last 18 years.

The Binghamton meeting was sponsored by five religious organizations along with the state teacher’s union (NYSUT), the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State, and the Food Bank of the Southern Tier. It opened with Ithaca’s Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers performing “Eyes On The Prize,” which got the audience singing, swaying, and clapping. The half-dozen clergy members who sat on the dais with Barber included a local rabbi, an imam, and the Rev. Kimberly Chaistain of the host church, who seemed overwhelmed by all the commotion.

“Presbyterians are called God’s frozen chosen for a reason,” she said.  “We’re not clappers.  But we’re learning. I think this is what the reign of God looks like.”

Many who attended looked as if they were old enough to remember the original Poor People’s Campaign, which the Rev. Martin Luther King was organizing when he was assassinated in April 1968.  Anti-poverty activists have always wanted to carry King’s work forward, according to Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the new campaign. A year and a half ago the nonprofit Kairos Center, which Theoharis directs, started laying the groundwork.    

Theoharis says that the new Poor People’s Campaign is inspired by King’s radical vision of change. “We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values,” he said in 1967.  “We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”  

A broad coalition committed to this “revolution in values” because so many different organizations have become frustrated by treating symptoms while the disease grows worse. More than 45 percent of all Americans have low incomes, which means that they earn less than twice the official federal threshold of poverty.  In the City of Ithaca, 23 percent of the non-student population lives below the official poverty line, according to the county health department, and many more are just scraping by in a city where the living wage for full-time workers is $15.11 an hour.   The campaign aims to organize poor people into a “nonviolent army” to demand change.

The Food Bank of the Southern Tier serves 16,000 people through 180 mostly church-based volunteer groups in six counties.  Interviews with these clients over the last several years convinced the group that they needed to do more than just feed people, said President Natasha Thompson.  The group joined the Labor-Religion Coalition’s “Truth Campaign,” which took testimony from low-income people across the state, and started training its clients to speak out.  

“It’s still early, but so far the results we’ve seen have been transformative,” says Thompson.  One such trainee, Jackie Bogart of Binghamton, told the crowd that “poverty is like a monster that sucks the life out of you.  I’d like to know what it’s like not to have to shoulder this burden.”  Beside her was Elizabeth James of Schenectady and her daughter AJ, who ignored the speakers while dancing around the podium.  “I shouldn’t have to choose between food and the light bill,” James told the crowd.  “I shouldn’t have to live this way.”  

In the next few months, committees in 25 states will organize a program of protests and actions that will begin around the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination and run for 40 days, says Theoharis.  Rev. Barber, the campaign’s other co-chair, came to Binghamton to drum up support.  

In his 45-minute speech, Barber told the crowd that racism is a thread that runs through American history, and that the racial conflicts going on today are nothing new.  He called voter suppression “surgical racism” but was careful to go beyond race, adding that “the same racial system that traps the hopes of black folk kills the hopes of white and brown folk as well.”  King, speaking just three weeks before his death, said “the destinies of white and black America are tied together…we must all learn to live together as brothers in this country, or we’re all going to perish together as fools…The black man needs the white man to save him from his fear, and the white man needs the black man to free him from his guilt.”

Barber’s rhythmic, masterful call-and-response sermon got the crowd to their feet as it rose in intensity.  As he reached his peak, volunteers passed out cards to collect names and contact information.  The audience wasn’t coming to Jesus − they were coming to the Poor People’s Campaign − but it looked mighty similar.

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