The real violence threatening America is that of our immoral public policy choices, at home and abroad.
The following is excerpted from a speech delivered by Rev. William Barber at a Martin Luther King Day celebration at Riverside Church in New York City last month. We publish it today as we both reflect on the violence inflicted upon the people of Flint, Michigan, by the state’s leadership and as we look toward weeks of voting in the presidential primaries. What values must guide our elected officials? What kinds of violence truly threaten our nation and our communities? Rev. Barber’s moving speech offers a progressive moral compass for our political process. —The Editors
For the past few weeks, we have been exposed to a flood of images of death and killing, with commentators of all stripes calling it terrorism, violence, and injustice out in California. The evil of taking a life is vile and vicious, by ISIS or any other thug—by anybody that’s just wanting to destroy life. We must pray for the families.
But as we look at these images, and listen to the diagnoses of the commentators, I hear a call from Dr. King and our ancestors to speak truth in the midst of terror, violence and injustice, to challenge a fundamental misdiagnosis against the opportunistic misdiagnoses of those who try to pimp and prostitute the deaths in California for their own vicious political agenda.
Some, like hosts on a certain sly-as-a-Fox television station, use the death of these innocent people to push their accusations—their racist, fear-mongering agenda against the president, against immigrants, and against Muslims. One of these flaky Fox fellas said the greatest threat to national security ever is a president who is incapable, psychologically and politically, and who is not in the business of protecting America but protecting Muslims.
In the tradition of Dr. King, we do not agree with everything our president or any politician has said. [But] that statement is ridiculous. Muslims are Americans. Muslims are soldiers in our military. What is really going on here is what Cornel West might call the “niggerization” or the “othering” of certain people.
You know what that is. The definition of the N-word is not simply the dishonoring and devaluing of black people and the economic exploitation and political disenfranchisement of black people. “Niggerization” is the wholesale attempt to impede democratization, to turn potential citizens into intimidated, fearful, and helpless subjects. They use the attacks on Muslims the same way racists in the past and present use fear-mongering against blacks.
As my friend Phyllis Bennett and I discussed the other night, America does not have a “Muslim problem” or even a “terrorism problem” as much as we have a race problem…a xenophobia problem. Let’s get the diagnosis right.
Let me push this further. Nothing is gained by pretending there aren’t terrible things to be afraid of. Terrorism is real because millions of people live in terror. But we must be clear about the roots of terror. We cannot misdiagnose the malignancy of terror. It’s not Islam. And it’s certainly not foreign. Terror is one of America’s exports. We cannot hide behind blind, infallible notions of American exceptionalism and pay our chaplains to deny it. Consider the second verse of “America the Beautiful,” a national hymn: America, America, God mend thy every flaw. Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
Our misdiagnosis of terrorism and violence occurs when it is rooted in the popular, but heretical notion that some people don’t matter as much as others. The greatest terrorist attacks in history have American fingerprints on them. The Middle Passage. The enslavement of millions of black human beings for 250 years. Legalized Jim Crow, lynching, and dozens of terrorist pogroms (which have usually been called race riots), that killed thousands of black people from Wilmington to Tulsa to Springfield, Illinois. The bombing and burning of black churches. The political assassinations of Martin, Malcolm, Medgar, Viola Liuzzo, James Reeb, Harriet Moore, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And let us not forget how America supported the long night of terror called apartheid, modeled after our southern Jim Crow system. Massive civil disobedience and protests and deaths were necessary to bring this terror to a halt. It was an embarrassment on the world stage.
The New Republic, in 2013, said many of the people today saying they hate terrorism were in support of apartheid and against Nelson Mandela. Ronald Reagan not only removed any sanctions against South Africa’s apartheid, he embraced the apartheid regime and put Mandela on the US terrorist list. Reagan vetoed the Anti-Apartheid Act, calling it morally repugnant. The so-called Moral Majority leader, Jerry Falwell, called Bishop Tutu a phony who didn’t speak for South African blacks. North Carolina’s Sen. Jesse Helms filibustered the sanction South Africa bill, as did Strom Thurmond, Phil Gramm, and many future Tea Party leaders. They speak now with unclean hands.
Let us be clear that many people we now denounce as terrorists were once paid agents of the US government. We helped them win power. (Remember the two leaders we silenced forever—Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden—after 9/11.) That doesn’t make their actions right. But Micah and Martin would say America can’t speak with clean hands.
Let us be clear about terrorism, violence, and injustice. Yes, San Bernardino was terrorism. But so was the Greensboro Massacre in the 1979. So was Mother Emanuel AME. So are drone attacks on civilian homes in Afghanistan. So is carpet bombing of cities.
We must not forget the key leaders of Daesh met and developed their agenda in US-run prisons at Camp Booker in Iraq. This hell hole would not have existed if America had not invaded Iraq in the first place, on false pretenses. Let us be clear. We must be clear, when some of us only protest when Palestinian groups target children and civilians—as we all should—but then they say nothing when Israel does the same, while refusing to negotiate Palestinian statehood. America cannot claim the moral high ground.
Let us not forget the domestic terrorism of Timothy McVeigh and other white militia men, who are usually arrested live, and treated as criminals. What would the stand-off out West that is presently being handled patiently and prudently have been if the persons who threatened to kill FBI agents were black or Latino? What about the shooting of Muslim students in Chapel Hill? No one called the deranged killer a terrorist. Or the attacks on non-Christian places of worship? What about rogue, racist police shootings of unarmed black adults and teenagers and youth and males and females in Chicago and Charlotte and New York? What about Tamir Rice and Jonathan Ferrell in Charlotte? This is terrorism, violence, and injustice!
But let us go further. Firearms kill 30,000 people in the United States every year. Guns will kill more Americans under 25 than cars in 2015. We have had, as of San Bernardino, 1,052 mass shootings in 1,066 days and all but two were Americans-on-Americans. President Obama reports that the pattern of domestic and American mass shootings in this country has no parallel anywhere else in the world. We must challenge black-on-black killing, white-on-white killing, human being-on-human being killing.
We live in a time when we must use our influence to challenge the misguided misdiagnosis of terrorism, violence, and injustice. If violence—as we say down South, let me work with this for a minute—if violence means to hurt and abuse needlessly, we must redefine how we talk about it. Our matriarch—Coretta Scott King–can help us here. She once said, when she was asked about violence because her husband had been killed, she said: Wait a minute. Poverty can produce a most deadly kind of violence. She said in this society, violence against poor people is routine. She said I remind you that starving a child is violent. Suppressing a culture is violence. Neglecting school children is violence; refusing them public education is violence. Discrimination against a working person is violence. Ghetto housing is violence. Ignoring medical needs and healthcare is violent. Contempt for equality is violence. And even a lack of willpower to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence.
Otto Scharmer at MIT talks about “attention violence” in the way that we make invisible the hurt and the pains of the poor. Even in our political discourse, we act like it’s hard to just say “poor.” We talk about “middle class” and those attempting to work their way into middle class. No, some folks are just “po’.” And they’re poor and “po’” because of economic injustices that go on in this country. Truth is, like Micah, Martin, and Coretta, we must refuse to go along with the popular misdiagnosis. Tell your neighbor, “Refuse the misdiagnosis.”
Truth is, public policy can be violent. When we are the wealthiest and the poorest country in the world at the same time, that’s a form of policy violence. When we bail out companies where CEOs make 350 times as much as their workers, and then we charge college students interest on loans, and we fight to break the back of unions—that’s a form of policy violence. When Warren Buffett, a member of the super-rich, tells us that four hundred of the wealthiest Americans took home an hourly wage of $97,000 an hour, while we refuse to pass laws requiring living wages all over this country, and now we are arresting people … simply because they want a living wage. That’s a form of policy violence. Especially when $15 is $5 lower than the minimum wage would have been if it had risen with inflation since 1968.
When a study right here at the Columbia School of Public Health tells us that more people die every year from poverty—250,000—than from heart attack, stroke, and lung cancer, that’s a form of policy violence. And when we know that rising income inequality breeds more inequality, and in turn it translates into a waste of human talent, that’s policy violence—when 1 percent of the US wealth-holders hold 39 percent of the country’s wealth, and 10 percent hold 74 percent, which means the other 90 percent of us have to fight over 26 percent.
Marian Wright Edelman tells us it’s a national moral disgrace that there are 14.7 million poor children in this country today, 6.5 million extremely poor, 150 years after the end of slavery, or the signing of the 13th Amendment. And that this number exceeds the combined population of twelve US states. And we know that just 2 percent of the federal government budget being put towards programs that work, could eradicate 60 percent of this, and we don’t do it? Even for our children? This is political, social, and policy violence.
And then we add the notion of “dollarocracy.” Ten billion dollars is going to be spent on [this] year’s election, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has to say that the Citizens United Ruling ushered in a hostile takeover of our government. When healthcare is being denied to eight million through just Medicaid expansion. And most of us in here, we were alright with the Affordable Care Act, but we really wanted universal healthcare, for everybody. That’s what South Africa has. That’s what Canada has. That’s what every other major country has. But at least do Medicaid expansion. Well, 24 states, mostly in the South and in the Midwest, 30,000 people are dying every year since 2013 just because some people can’t stand a black man in a White house.
Now I don’t say that lightly, I don’t say that just [as] hyperbole, because I’m a pretty rational guy, you know…. But it can’t be partisan, because healthcare for all was first proposed by a Republican named Teddy Roosevelt. It can’t be financial, because it would generate thousands of jobs. And it can’t be because people are lazy, because Medicaid goes to the working poor and even veterans. So the only thing left is that you would rather keep people sick, because you don’t want a black man in a White house to be successful….
Lead in the water in Flint. You know that never would have happened in the suburbs, huh? Corporations dumping coal ash in North Carolina. Public policy violence.
We know that public education is the key to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Dwight Eisenhower, Republican, once said it was a matter of national security how we fund public education. And he was criticized, by the way, by Freddie Koch, daddy of David and Charles Koch, so you see where they get that from. And yet, 60 years after Brown vs. Board, we have high-poverty, re-segregated public schools on the rise while policies are funding privatized schools with public money; and teachers are being attacked relentlessly; and a Supreme Court justice says on the bench, when looking at a case on affirmative action that maybe it would be better for black students to go to a slower-track school where they do well, than to go to a highly selective college like the University of Texas. That’s Scalia’s point, and that’s violent, that’s a form of political violence. So if we’re going to talk about violence and injustice, we must talk about policy violence, just like Micah, just like Martin, just like Coretta.
Refusing to fix immigration in a land of immigrants is a form of political violence. Deporting rather than doing the right thing by people who have helped build this country. You want to put them out, but you don’t arrest the people that hire them in the first place. That’s a form of violence. Reminds me of an old song, the way some people want to treat immigrants, all of these folks who are immigrants themselves, came from here and there, the same rules they’re proposing now their own grandmamma wouldn’t have gotten in the country if they had. [It] sounds like the [lyrics in a Bill Withers] song, “use me, till you use me up.”…
And then what about the policy violence against voting rights? Supreme Court justices—just five of them, unlike the Brown decision that was nine-zip—five Supreme Court justices gut Section 4, nullify Section 5 and we are sitting here today and the AG, the attorney general, of these United States Loretta Lynch has less power to enforce voting rights than the AG had on August 7, 1965. And then Boehner first, and then Ryan and McConnell have been engaged in a two-year filibuster [of a bill that would restore protections]—longer that Strom Thurmond filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act—and because of that you see attacks on voting rights all over the country after the blood and sacrifices to secure them.
And not only do you see attacks trying to stop us from expanding voting rights, you have a dangerous thing going on called “retrogression,” where the things that were already won—same day registration, early voting, straight ticket vote—are being taken backwards. And we can’t challenge them on the front end because there’s no Section 5. And just the other week, the Supreme Court took up another case considering changing the one person, one vote principle. That’s a form of violence….
The truth is, we’ve got an extreme agenda, my brothers and sisters, afoot in America that ought to worry us. It ought to worry us until we get into action, because this agenda says that the road to a great America is: cut money to public education, deny healthcare, deny unemployment, deny environmental justice, deny earned income tax credit, deny equal rights to immigrants, gay citizens, challenge the president on everything, refuse to even support what is good for America, deny and abridge voting rights, distort the religious beliefs of other religions, use the so-called platform of “true” Christianity to denounce other religions, and then—after you’ve done all of that to divide people and even after Charleston and San Bernardino and other mass murders—make sure that everybody can get a gun easier than they can vote. And that’s their agenda.
And if they are cynical enough to be together, we ought to be smart enough to come together. We ought to say, there are some things that transcend political majority, and mere majority politics and the narrow categories of liberal versus conservative, and Democrat versus Republican. There are some things that we must challenge because they are wrong, they are extreme, they are immoral and they tear at the soul of our nation and our children’s future.
So if we’re going to be a great nation, we can’t afford to let this misdiagnosis go unchallenged. So just as Micah was told by God to say to Judah, and Dr. King was told by God to say to America, it’s time to call a meeting. A revival meeting of the soul, and of the mind, and of the heart. We need a meeting today. And in this meeting we must dare, like the prophets to connect love and justice, in pulpits and in the public square. In this meeting we must challenge moral hypocrisy, because the only antidote to these lies is a truth-telling meeting, a revival, a revolution of moral values that names violence in all of its forms, and then offers a vision for nonviolent transformation. In this meeting, we must demand the right agenda. We must say: America, healing is available. Curing is available. You can be well, but you’ve got to do some things.
Number one, you got to secure pro-labor, anti-poverty policies that ensure economic sustainability by fighting for full employment, living wages, the alleviation of despair and unemployment, a green economy, labor rights, affordable housing, targeted empowerment zones, strong safety net services for the poor, fair policies for immigrants, critiquing war policies that further disable our ability to have a real war on poverty, infrastructure development and fair reform.
Healing is available America, if you focus on educational equality by ensuring that every child receive a high-quality, well-funded, constitutionally diverse public education, and access to community college and university.
Healing is available if you guarantee healthcare for all. First, by assuring access to the Affordable Care Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, but then get universal healthcare and hurry-up and do it America. And if you provide environmental protection—because they may have found water on Mars but we’re still here right now. And then you’ve got to make sure that women’s health is ultimately protected.
There’s healing, healing, but in order for there to be healing, you’ve got to have fairness in the criminal justice system, by addressing the continuing inequalities and the brutalities of the system that impact black, brown and poor white people. And then if you want healing, you’ve got to protect and expand voting rights, and women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights, and immigrant rights, and you can never give up on the fundamental principle of equal protection under the law for everybody. It’s time to have a meeting!
It’s time to have a meeting. And in this meeting, hallelujah, we must fully participate in our democracy. Tell everybody, tell people of conscience: If Harriet Tubman got 500 people out of slavery, and all she had was moss on the north side of a tree and a good conscience and a pistol, she didn’t have email, she didn’t have Twitter, she didn’t have Facebook, if she could do that then, surely we can have a meeting at the ballot box!
Let’s have a meeting. I don’t care how they try to keep us from the polls. Somebody asked this morning on the Melissa Harris Perry show: Is it protest or participation? I said it’s both. You protest and you participate. You don’t give up on the vote, you don’t give away the vote. Too many people died, too many people bled, too many sacrificed. Do you know that 30 percent of unregistered black voters being registered in the South—10 percent in North Carolina, 10 percent in Georgia—connected with progressive whites that will vote and not stay at home, and Latinos, can break open the “solid South.” And if you break open the solid South you break open the nation.
We better have a meeting. I don’t care if you like Bernie or Hillary, or whoever you like, but you’d better know that black lives is on the ballot, healthcare is on the ballot, Fight for $15 is on the ballot. God says have a meeting.
God says: Come together and focus again on my purposes. And when you do, Micah said, God says: Look, you just have a meeting, and I’ll be in the midst of it. I’ll guide you. The prophets had a meeting. During the First Reconstruction following the violent Civil War, blacks and whites had a meeting. They came together. They came together to democratize southern legislatures. They changed the plantation economy. They expanded education, voting rights, economic power, and civil rights. Poor White farmers recognized the common cause with freed slaves. They had a meeting. They were called “fusion” coalitions.
In the 20th Century, we had a Second Reconstruction. It was a meeting. Black and white, and Christian and Jew, labor and civil rights, they joined together following the nonviolent struggles of Montgomery, the Supreme Court decision in ‘54, the lunch counter sit-ins, the Freedom Rides, they had a meeting. We had a Second Reconstruction. We saw legal victories, we saw the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing. We saw economic expansion and Medicaid expansion.
We need a meeting. Those meetings were stopped, but we had a meeting and the meeting brought reconstruction. And we need a Third Reconstruction. We need a third awakening. We need a third national revival. We need a meeting. Oh Lord, we need a meeting.
And, as I conclude, the forces of regression are scared of us having a meeting because they know how powerful we are when we get together. And they know that God will be in the midst. And that’s why they’re fighting it so hard. That’s why they want the environmentalists to fight over here. And Black Lives Matter to fight over here. And Fight for $15 to fight over here. And the LGBTQ community to fight over here. And civil rights to fight over there. But they’re not fighting us this unified. It’s time for a meeting….
Several years ago, I talk about it some in the book, they said I might never walk again. They said I might never get out of a wheelchair again. I was 30 years old. I had always depended on my legs. I woke up one morning and couldn’t move. I had a major, major chronic arthritic condition. I spent almost three months in and out of a hospital bed, not knowing if I would ever get up again to walk on my own will and accord. For 12 years, I was in a wheelchair, for 12 years I was on a walker, for 12 years every time I stood to preach I, it felt like somebody had a butcher knife poking it inside my left hip.
But over those years, there was a meeting. Somehow my mind got together. There was a meeting. Then my doctors, they got together. And then my swim coach got together and my therapist got together, my nutritionist got together, then my church got together. The prayer warriors got together, my family got together, then the Holy Ghost got in the middle of it. I can jump now! I can march now.
I’m telling you, when God is in the meeting—“If my people, who are called by my name, would humble themselves, seek my face, turn from their wicked ways, then I’ll hear from heaven!”—when God is in the meeting, one can chase a thousand and two can put ten thousand to flight. When God is in the meeting, if we all get together, God will guide, God will move. I want you to know that when hands that once picked cotton [join] with Latino hands and have a meeting with progressive white hands, and have a meeting with labor hands, and have a meeting with Asian hands, and have a meeting with Native American hands, and have a meeting with poor hands, and wealthy hands, and gay hands, and straight hands—when we have a meeting and come together, our togetherness becomes the instrument of redemption.
When we come together, we can make the right diagnosis. When we come together, we can declare this land is your land, and this land is my land. When we come together, we can ensure that all of God’s children are respected and treated with dignity. When we come together, we can make sure that America lives out its promise: one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. When we get together. When we all get together. When we all get together. When we all get together. What a day! What a day! What a day! What a day! What a day of rejoicing it will be! What a day!
Are there any Latinos in here? I need one to come to the pulpit. Are any of my LGBTQ sisters and brothers here? I need you to come to the pulpit. Is there anybody wealthy with a conscience. I need you to come to the pulpit. Is there somebody poor, come to the pulpit. Is there somebody that needs healthcare, come to the pulpit. Is there a preacher here? Come to the pulpit. Is there anybody Jewish here? Come to the pulpit. Come to the pulpit. Any Muslims here? Come to the pulpit. Any Black Lives Matter people here? Come to the pulpit. Any Labor people? Come to the pulpit. Come on! Any environmentalists, come to the pulpit. Are there any teachers here, come to the pulpit. Come to the pulpit, come to the pulpit. Any Asians? Come to the pulpit. Any Native Americans? Join me at the pulpit. Come to the pulpit.
When we all, when we all, when we all, when we all—America, America—when we all, we’re coming! We’re coming! We’re coming! And when we all get together, what a day!