Barber: The rejected ‘are the cornerstones who can rebuild America’
Rev. William Barber | Kaitlin McKeown / The Herald-Sun via AP

WASHINGTON—People rejected in the past – African-Americans, Latinos, poor whites, women and workers – “are the cornerstones who can rebuild America,” the Rev. William Barber declared in his latest sermon in the Nation’s Capital about the New Poor People’s Campaign.

“The rejected must lead a revival of love and justice” in the U.S., the veteran North Carolinian minister told a near-capacity crowd in the largest church in D.C., Washington National Cathedral.

Barber’s hour-long sermon before almost 4,000 people featured references, from both the Torah (the Old Testament) and the Holy Scriptures (the New Testament) about how the downtrodden of history, written off, rejected or ignored by “leaders,” rose up to lead the masses to reclaim nations and moral values.

The ancient downtrodden and rejected, Barber said, included Moses, King David and Jesus Christ. And the downtrodden and rejected who later became leaders also included modern people such as Rosa Parks and Bayard Rustin. And Christ’s famous sermon at Nazareth was actually a reading from the moral dictates of the prophet Isaiah, known for his thundering denunciations of tyranny and inequality.

Lacking Christs and Isaiahs now, “rejected stones make the best capstones” for a moral revival, Barber kept repeating.  The poor, in particular, “have been made poor by the economic systems of exploitation.”

They in turn “will declare the truth” and lead the campaign against poverty and for a moral revival.

Particular leaders, Barber told the audience, must publicize and overcome past U.S. history – including “the Trail of Tears, the genocide of Native (American) people, and the rejection of black people’s humanity…reducing human beings to nothing more than mere property and animals.”

That will be a tall order, he admitted. It’s also the key reason, he has said previously, why the New Poor People’s Campaign will extend far beyond its planned D.C. capstone, a June 23 mass march on the U.S. Capitol.

Barber’s sermon this weekend was the latest in a series he and his co-chair, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, have been preaching nationwide in their weeks-long campaign to put the fight against poverty, racism, the military machine and war, xenophobia, injustice in the criminal system, denial of voting rights and other ills afflicting the U.S. all at the top of the national agenda.

“The rejected must lead us to health care for all, to equal justice for all, to a living wage, and we have got to do better protecting our children than protecting our guns,” Barber said. “The stone the builders” of the U.S. “rejected has become the capstone. This is God’s work and it is marvelous in our eyes.”

The New Poor People’s Campaign has drawn the support of a number of unions, including the Steelworkers, the Communications Workers, the Teachers, AFSCME and the Service Employees. It started on Mother’s Day and will continue with peaceful protests – including intentional arrests of leaders and participants – along with teach-ins and study sessions weekly through the June 23 event.

Past arrests led Barber to one moment of whimsy in his sermon. “I’ve already been arrested twice in Washington, D.C.,” he said with a grin. “So when I walked in and saw the security guards, I thought ‘Even in the National Cathedral?’”

The New Poor People’s Campaign’s goal is to have “systematic racism, sexism and xenophobia move off the stage” in the U.S., while producing a moral revival that Barber, in his sermon, termed “a third Reconstruction.”  The first, he told the crowd, was cut short by racism after 1877. The second, he has said before, was the civil rights movement.

To achieve that goal, the campaign has been emphasizing a different theme every week since it began. The week after Memorial Day focused on militarism and war. It coupled admiration of individual soldiers, sailors, Marines and air force personnel, along with better care for them when they come home, with criticism of the causes they were sent to fight for and of the war economy in back of them.

The week of June 3 started with yet another planning meeting that day for a mass march and peaceful protests – including arrests – the next day. The week’s events emphasize health care for all. Barber has previously called for enactment of universal single-payer national health insurance.

“We must be honest about the foundation of the political and economic systems of America. I love America, but I know America will never fulfill her potential and complete the work of Reconstruction until we are honest about her past and the politics of rejection,” he said.

That declaration, and other stirring calls to action, produced, at the end, a lengthy standing ovation.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).