Rev. Barber: These times require a new language and a new fusion coalition

The moral crisis we face demands a political Pentecost in America today.

Rev. William Barber, President of the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP, speaks to those gathered at Bicentennial Mall in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, May 19, 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome
Rev. William Barber, President of the North Carolina Chapter of the NAACP, speaks to those gathered at Bicentennial Mall in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, May 19, 2014. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerry Broome

The following is an edited version of remarks delivered by Rev. William Barber, II at the Democratic National Committee Future Forum on January 27 in Houston, Texas.

After one week of Trump’s rule by executive order, mass protests erupted over the weekend as citizens determined to resist a Muslim ban stood in solidarity with hundreds of detained visa-holders. In the midst of this crisis, as several elected officials joined protests and Democrats promised legislation to overturn Trump’s order, the Democratic National Committee hosted a Future Forum in Houston to consider strategies for a political resistance to Trumpism.

As a preacher, I went to Houston to call for a moral and political Pentecost, drawing on the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles:

When the Feast of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Without warning there was a sound like a strong wind, gale force — no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. Then, like a wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks, and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them. (Acts 2:1–4, The Message)

Christians remember this story every year as the beginning of our liberation movement in the way of Jesus. Prophetic and liberationist Pentecostals in America recall it with special devotion because it is central to our understanding of how the Spirit interrupts this world’s systems to offer us a new way forward in times of crisis. But this text has an even broader application in our moment, because America is in deep need of a political Pentecost.

Pentecost is about a new thing — not simply the next chapter in an ever-evolving story, but a radical new thing — an interruption of the way things are that brings about a transformation for everyone involved. Thomas Kuhn called it a “paradigm shift.” The founders of this nation talked about it in terms of “revolution.” Dr. King referred to the zeitgeist. But whatever you call it, there are times when a deep, moral crisis demands that the way we have framed things up until now is insufficient.

It is manifestly clear that we are living in such a time.

But the text from Acts helps us to see how, in this moment of political Pentecost, we need a new tongue, a new fire, and a new wind. If we get our language right, we can start to see some new things. And if we see by the light of that new illumination, we can start to feel a new wind blowing across this land. And when we all get together, the time is ripe for a political Pentecost.

Getting Our Language Right

We have inherited a language that is too puny for the crisis we face. Somewhere, somehow, progressives learned to think of ourselves as part of the so-called “left.” At some point around the time of the French Revolution, “left” and “right” described a political reality that actually existed. These terms were passed down to us. But the language of left versus right and liberal versus conservative is too puny to challenge the extremism we’re facing now. Why in the world would you call “right” something that you know is so wrong?

We need a deeper, moral language to name this crisis. We’ve got to learn to speak in tongues if we’re going to challenge lies. This is no time for a polite conversation about “alternative facts.” We need moral clarity.

It’s wrong to take healthcare away from 20 million Americans.

It’s wrong to blame our economic challenges on poor people, immigrants, and people of color while we give welfare to corporations in the form of dramatic tax cuts.

It’s wrong to scapegoat Muslim immigrants for violence perpetuated by American foreign policy.

It’s wrong to nominate a man who knows nothing about housing to lead an agency he doesn’t believe in.

It’s wrong to put a man in charge of protecting voting rights who has failed to uphold them as a member of Congress.

Some things just aren’t right versus left. They’re right versus wrong.

If we’re going to have a political Pentecost in America, we’ve got to reclaim moral and Constitutional language that helps people see what’s really going on.

New Fire to Illuminate a Way Forward

We can’t see a way forward without understanding how we got here. America isn’t going to able to achieve the Third Reconstruction we need until we, see by the light of a new fire, how this nation’s first and second attempts at Reconstruction were met with a backlash of extremism.

Writing for the New York Times, Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter has named the pattern we are witnessing as a “call and response.”

“Here is the iconography of a tragic, traditionally American call and response,” she says. “The call: a challenge to the status quo of white-people-on-top; the response: outbreaks of meanness, many merely vile, embracing rhetorical weapons, many murderous, taking up physical weapons. The bloody history of lynching, with its festive mobs and souvenir post cards and body parts, bristles with personal provocations to the racial status quo.”

In the 19th-century, following the Civil War, fusion coalitions came together throughout the South to reconstruct this nation as a republic that would, in fact, guarantee liberty and justice to all. In my home state of North Carolina, a white minister and a black minister worked together to re-write the Constitution, guaranteeing all persons the right to life, liberty, the just fruit of their own labor and the pursuit of happiness.

But this radically democratic call evoked a violent backlash. The Ku Klux Klan arose in the South, attacking white people before they ever attacked black people. They were determined to destroy the fusion coalition. In the 1920s, a resurgent Klan added immigrants, Catholics and unruly women to its black targets, even as Jim Crow politicians formed strong alliances with Wall Street. We can’t get it twisted: the response of white supremacy has always rallied to the call of, “We have to take our country back.”

The emergence of a Second Reconstruction — during what we sometimes narrowly remember as a “civil rights movement” — was really about a new fusion coalition coming together. Civil rights and labor, immigrants and women, poor folks of every shade. Remember: Dr. King was killed while he was working to organize a Poor People’s Campaign to demand a Marshall Plan for America’s poor.

Donald Trump is not the first candidate to play on our worst fears or use divide-and-conquer tactics.

But this call evoked the same response. The Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and Fair Housing Act were the fruit of decades of struggle, waged by people who knew they might never see victory in their own lifetimes. The backlash against them wasn’t limited to Southern segregationists. Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign of 1968 was an intentional effort to win the solid South by appealing to racial hate and fear without using racist language. His adviser, Kevin Phillips, called it the “Southern Strategy.”

Dr Painter says, “Today’s challenge to white people on top is the most acute in history: the election and re-election of a president who is black, with a wife who is black and two daughters who are black. Responses to this challenge began early, with the vow to make Obama a one-term president, and they continue in congressional refusal to govern, birtherism, ‘You lie!’ and countless visual stereotypes that lost currency a century ago. In addition to simply being black, the president has embraced immigration reform, a reform identified with brown people. Without Barack Obama, there is no Donald Trump. Trump is so obviously unsuited for the job of president of the United States, but he was the nominee most suited to answer this call.”

We need some moral fire to help us see clearly how this history shapes our present reality. I’ve heard too many people say over the past several months, “We’ve never seen anything like this before.” If you didn’t see it, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening. Donald Trump is not the first candidate to play on our worst fears or use divide-and-conquer tactics. One hundred years ago Woodrow Wilson brought Birth of Nation in the White House. Today, it’s Breitbart and Bannon. The package may be different, but the content is the same.

We’ve seen this before. And because we have, we know what beats it: people coming together in fusion coalitions, discovering our common ground, by linking arms and refusing to be divided.

We aren’t suffering the present attacks on American values because we’re weak. No, the fire of a political Pentecost helps us to see clearly that we’re under attack because we’re strong.

If they had to turn back to the playbook on the 1960s, it’s because we are strong.

If they have to lie and make up stories about widespread voter fraud, it’s because we are strong.

If they have to gerrymander voting districts and fight tooth and nail in the courts, it’s because we are strong.

If they need a foreign government’s help to hack emails, it’s because we are strong.

Let the light of a political Pentecost shine, and America will see that we are stronger together and that we must move forward together, not one step back!

But we cannot stand down — not now, not ever. And we cannot succumb to the forces that would divide us.

At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last summer, I tried to use the language of morality to say we have a heart problem. It’s not a left problem or a right problem. It’s a heart problem. And God knows we need some moral defibrillators to shock the heart of this nation.

But any good doctor knows that even after a heart has been shocked back to life, it may still require surgery. And they tell me that they don’t ever do surgery on the heart these days without first doing an MRI. An X-Ray can give you a two dimensional picture of what’s going on inside the body. But it takes an MRI to really see clearly what a heart needs.

In this season of political Pentecost, we need all 3 dimensions of an MRI.

M — Morality and values

R — Racial justice and diversity

I — Income and economic justice

We can’t let these so-called white evangelicals talk about morality without addressing race and class in this country.

But we also can’t let Paul Ryan talk about poverty as a moral issue without addressing this country’s long history of racial disparity. “Entitlements” and “tax cuts” are racially-coded words. You can’t see this nation clearly without looking at all three dimensions.

Whenever someone asks, “Is it race or is it class?” we need to say, “Yes.”

And we can’t get it twisted as we consider strategies for resistance. Trump didn’t win in November simply because he appealed to the “white working class.” I’m not saying the economic pain of white folks isn’t real. I’m just saying they’re not alone. Poor white people are hurting just like poor black people and poor brown people. And the wealthiest cabinet in this nation’s history is taking power because we let Trumpism get away with pitting poor white people against poor people of color.

We have 8 million more poor white people in America than black people, yet many of them have been persuaded to elect candidates who promise to end health care, defund public education, and deny living wages despite the fact that 64 million families live on less than a living wage while 400 families make 97,000 hour. This is bigger than a class problem.

When 22 states since 2010 pass voter suppression laws and draw race-driven, unconstitutional, apartheid-like congressional and state legislative districts in the states that represent the highest growth in black and brown voter — states that have 57 percent of black voters, 234 electoral votes, and 44 senators — and when, at the same time, we have less voting rights protect than we had in 1965, this is more than a class problem.

And when Ryan, McConnell, and Congress committed to obstruct restoration of the Voting Rights Act for more than 3 and half years, long before the emergence of Donald Trump, we have more than a working class problem.

And in the 2016 election, when we saw 868 less voting places in minority, African American communities, and not one serious question about voter suppression in any of the presidential debates, we have more than class problem.

When politicians tell Democrats they lose because of identity politics — that is, because we focus on issues affecting black and brown people — and some Democrats believe it rather than saying, “Yes, we believe in identifying rather ignoring the hurting, the oppressed, and the poor,” we have much more than a class problem.

We need the fire of a political Pentecost to illuminate the connections between race and class in America. Whenever someone asks, “Is it race or is it class?” we need to say, “Yes.”

It’s always both. We can’t let these folks who are drunk on some kind of fermented Tea Party brew get on their sly-as-a-Fox News network and talk about how they’re giving government back to the people without showing America the faces of people who are being hurt by these policies. Every member of Congress who’s fighting to save the ACA should invite an impacted white person and an impacted black person and an impacted brown person from your district to stand with you on the floor and say, “You’re killing us.”

We need black, white, and brown children to stand together and say, “You’re attacking our public education.”

We need Muslims, Christians, and Jews to say, “A Muslim ban is an attack on all religious liberty.”

I’m praying for some fresh fire in this political Pentecost to help us see clearly.

Fresh Wind for a Third Reconstruction

Language and vision and are important. We need tongues and we need fire. But if we’re going to have a political Pentecost, we also need fresh wind. We need a moral fusion movement blowing in every community across this land.

Yes, we’re witnessing extremism in Washington, D.C. But some of us have been facing it for a while now. The extremists took over state government in my home state of North Carolina four years ago. But we challenged them with the moral language of our deepest religious and constitutional traditions. We dug deep into our state’s history of fusion politics and committed to stand together. And we learned something about extremism.

The same folks who were attacking public schools in our state were attacking health care. And the same folks against health care were against the LGBTQ community. And they were against labor. And they were attacking immigrants and Muslims and poor people. And to top it all off, the extremists were crying “voter fraud” as justification for the worst voter suppression measures we’d seen since Jim Crow.

They didn’t have any more evidence than Trump has now. We fought them in court and won. But we had to realize something deeper about our movement: if they were cynical enough to get together on all of these issues, we had to be courageous enough to come out of our single-issue silos and fight together in the streets, in the legislature, in the courts and at the ballot box.

When we linked up and started fighting back with Moral Mondays, they fought us harder. We lost some battles, and we’ve spent some long nights in jail. But even as Trumpism rolled across the South this past November, we beat extremism in our governor’s race, in four Council of State races, and in the race for a state Supreme Court seat. The extremists controlled all three branches of government before the election, but they only have the legislature now. And a federal court has ordered a special election this year because they found the legislature districts were gerrymandered with racial intent.

America needs more than a strategy to win back some seats for Democrats in 2018. We need a long term plan for a moral movement that links up and fights together for a moral agenda. Trump’s extremism is bad, but I’m convinced that it’s the last gasp of an order that knows it’s passing away. The question isn’t whether these lies and attacks can last. They cannot. The question is, “Who will stand together to offer a real alternative to the disaster of these policies?”

At the Pentecost that Acts tells us about 2,000 years ago, people were impressed by folks speaking and understanding languages that weren’t their own. Tongues got the ears’ attention, and fire caught the eye’s attention. But the real miracle of that day was that people got together who would have never gotten together otherwise.

And those people changed the world.

The moral crisis we face demands a political Pentecost in America today. It’s our time to come together. During slavery, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and some Quakers and white evangelicals got together and formed a fusion movement that brought about abolition. When women didn’t have the right to vote, Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton got together, and they stood together until suffrage was won. Every major social movement in this nation’s history has won, in the end, because a moral, fusion coalition came together and refused to stand down in the face of tyranny.

It’s our time now. We’ve got to get on one accord. We need a political Pentecost to give us a new tongue, moral fire, and fresh wind for a Third Reconstruction in America.

A video of Rev. Barber’s speech is embedded below.