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Building a movement with Rev. Dr. William Barber II: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks to Rev. Dr. William Barber II about doing the tireless work of stitching together a multiracial democracy.

How do you build a movement? How do you connect people across race and religion and identity in order to create a united coalition? This is the work of Rev. Dr. William Barber II, one of the best and most important political voices in America right now.

He has dedicated his life to the fight against systemic racism and poverty, and is known for his ability to organize diverse coalitions around every manner of social justice issues. He’s an incredible figure in movement building politics, particularly in the South, who is doing the tireless work of stitching together a multiracial democracy.

REV. DR. BARBER: If people have to, number one, engage in the worst voter suppression we've seen since the '60s, the worst gerrymandering since Jim Crow, if they have to go all the way to Russia and get help, if they have to lie every turn to get help, if they have to racialize things, they realize that if people really understood, if you vote, you get health care, if you vote, you're going to get some living wage, if you vote the right way. If they have to do all of that to beat you, don't you recognize that they are afraid?

CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to “Why Is This Happening?” with me, your host, Chris Hayes. Well, I don't know if you guys know this, but I'm a huge basketball fan, and this is the time of year, it's the off-season of NBA basketball. There's lots going on in the off season. There's two big things. There's the draft and there's free agency, both of which have gotten super crazy in recent years. Huge superstars moving from team to team. There's also a huge amount of activity around the draft. And it's kind of great. It keeps people interested in the game in the off season.

I was thinking the other day, as I was thinking about today's episode and how I wanted to intro it, that if you asked me to either build a free agency team or draft a team of the best, most important political voices in America right now, in my top, probably top five, would be today's guest. That's the best intro I could do for this guy, because he's ... He and all that he has to say and his vision of the world and all the work he's doing really speaks for itself. I don't think there's any real need for me to wind up to it. He's just a really remarkable singular voice in American politics.

His name is Reverend Dr. William Barber. Actually, Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II. As you can tell from his multiple titles, he is a minister. I've had the great privilege of getting to watch him deliver a Sunday sermon in his church down in North Carolina. He's also an incredibly active figure in movement building in politics, particularly in the South, and focused on a kind of movement building he calls fusion politics, bringing white, black folks, people of color, immigrants together across lines of race, across lines of religion, across different identity lines to build coalitions for justice, particularly focused on poor people. He has an incredible sense of history, and he just does the work. There's lots of people who opine in our world, like your friendly podcast host, but he does the work day in, day out.

I think that you will notice one of the themes of this show and one of the themes that I am obsessed with, and they're related, is one, the history of Reconstruction, and two, the future of multiracial democracy. I'm really obsessed with the fact of how do we build a vibrant, truly diverse, multiracial, multiethnic democracy that's just and equitable and can bind people together across different lines of identity. And there's one place in American history where that was really done, which was the multiracial governments of the brief period of Reconstruction before they were destroyed by white supremacist terrorism.

So Dr. Barber and I talk about that. But we also talk about the modern day. And similar to the conversations I had with a few other people I've had on the show, Dorian Warren and George Goehl, both to come to mind. We're talking about what is the on-the-ground practice of building multiracial democracy look like? I don't think there's anyone in America who is both as active and as visionary about that as Reverend Dr. Barber.

Reverend, where are you from? Where'd you grow up?

REV. DR. BARBER: Well, it's interesting, Chris. I was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, August 30th, 1963. My mother said she went into Labor on the 28th and I said, "Hold up. Wait a minute. Let's see what this March on Washington does."

CHRIS HAYES: And then once that went well, you were ready to come out?

REV. DR. BARBER: Well, that's right, because my father and mother got a call from a principal in eastern North Carolina where my father was from, Washington County, asking him to come back and for both of them to help integrate the public schools. You know, in North Carolina, it was something like 15 years after Brown, many schools had still not begun desegregation.

CHRIS HAYES: So your parents moved back to North Carolina where they were from, specifically with the goal of integrating the schools there?

REV. DR. BARBER: My father was from there. My mother joined him. She became the first black office manager, secretary in the high school, gave up her career there. Just retired by the way, 53 years.


REV. DR. BARBER: And my father was one of the first science teachers, and he came back to work there and work among poor farmers, and also work among workers who, many of them were working for what we call the wood companies, the big mills. But many of them were not getting paid fairly, and many black workers were not being paid what their white counterparts were being paid. So I didn't have a choice. I was thrust into the movement. They entered me into segregated public school, Chris, didn't ask me my permission. I could have gone to an integrated school in Indianapolis, Indiana. But they said, "No, this is worth doing." And they did it.

CHRIS HAYES: Wait. So they moved back to integrate the schools, and by “integrate the schools”, what they meant was send you, their child, into an all-white school.

REV. DR. BARBER: And to be in the first core of people. So I went to an all-white school first two years. My mother started out at the ... I went to the all-black kindergarten first, then went to the-


REV. DR. BARBER: ... all white first grade, I think second grade. My mother was the first black office manager. My father was the first actually black physics teacher in Washington County. It was quite a sacrifice for them to do that. And my father was a two master degree preacher in the 1960s and could have stayed in Indianapolis, Indiana, and had a tremendous and probably pretty financial career, but he chose to come back home to the South.

CHRIS HAYES: To teach science.


CHRIS HAYES: So, you guys are integrating these schools at every level, the teaching core, administratively, and you the student. How old were you? You're six or seven or something like that?

REV. DR. BARBER: I was born in '63, I was about five when I went to kindergarten.

CHRIS HAYES: Do you remember that experience?

REV. DR. BARBER: '68. I remember some of it. Now what I remember, a little bit from when I was five and I went to the all-black kindergarten, I do remember some of the first or second grade. But interestingly, Chris, the memory that I do have from '68 was, it's etched in my memory, my mother just falling on the couch and shrilling, just crying, and my father coming in the house and just crying, and both of them looking at this white TV with the old rabbit ears that you used to put aluminum foil at the end for better reception.

CHRIS HAYES: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

REV. DR. BARBER: I came to find out later, that was the day Dr. King was shot.


REV. DR. BARBER: People say you can't remember when you're too young, but the pain of it must've just grabbed and etched in my memory.

CHRIS HAYES: So you continued to be at this largely all white school, right? I mean, was it ...

REV. DR. BARBER: Well, it was largely all white, because it's interesting how they started. They started in the lower grades. And then by the time I got to high school, it was pretty much mixed, not 50/50. But listen, when I was in high school, Chris, and I tell people this, and you probably going to fall out when I say it. We were still in 1979, 1979, we were still electing a black homecoming queen and a white homecoming queen, a black student government president and a white student government president. And each of them would serve a half a year.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh my god.

REV. DR. BARBER: I was in the drama corps in my school in 1988, I was a thespian, and there was a role in the play, South Pacific, the leading character a black girl wanted, but she was ... So much protest because she would've had to kiss a young white man that they changed her out, made her the witch doctor in the play.


REV. DR. BARBER: I was the first African American elected to be president of the student government at Plymouth High School that served the whole year.

CHRIS HAYES: So you broke the spell of the dual presidents, dual shared presidency.

REV. DR. BARBER: That's right. I was the first one. Mm-hmm (affirmative).


REV. DR. BARBER: I was the first one.

CHRIS HAYES: What did that teach you? I mean, what was your takeaway from being thrust as a child into the frontier battle for social justice, racial integration in the heart of the deep South?

REV. DR. BARBER: Well, as I think about it now, it is that in some sense we all are thrust into it. We don't choose it. And we all have a responsibility in every moment and every time we were in. When I got ready to go to college, to North Carolina Central University, and my father took me outside, he had a group of people there and he put them in a circle, had me stand in the middle. And he said, "Now, you owe." He said, "You owe God because he's given you a brain with recall that's greater than any computer. He's given you a hand with a thumb that separates you from a primate. But you owe all of these people that had the ability but never got the opportunity to go where you went, or are going."

CHRIS HAYES: Wow. Did that land to your 18-year-old self?

REV. DR. BARBER: Oh yeah. Yeah. I mean, in a heavy way. I mean, I went to North Carolina Central University, which is a historically black college and university, but do you know, historically black college and university, you got to say that carefully. They were never segregated.


REV. DR. BARBER: They were historically black because that's the only place black people could go.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. But I could have gone there. Right? I mean there are folks that, there are white folks that go.

REV. DR. BARBER: White folks not only that go, that could have gone back then if the laws would have allowed, but many of the professors were white. Many of the financiers were white, but they were schools that were set up for the opportunity for African Americans. North Carolina Central University was founded by an African American, a preacher and pharmacist, who founded the school as the first state-sponsored school in North Carolina in 1910. And I went to school intending on being a lawyer. I went to school because North Carolina Central University had a law school, and I will tell you, I don't talk about this on a lot of shows, but you and I are friends, so I'll talk about it.

I didn't want to do ministry. I had seen my father do ministry. There’s 500 years of ministry in my family on my father's side, and 300 on my mother's side. I didn't want to be a preacher. And I had seen him fight, again, in the church, against ... Trying to get the church to be more engaged in social justice. And I'm talking about primarily the African American church. And I'd saw him wage those battles, and I said, "No, I won't do that." And I had a real struggle with that theologically. Because I had been taught by my father and my mother that to say Jesus and justice is to say the same thing, to say Jesus and truth, to say Jesus and be concerned about the poor and at least is the same thing. That is not something separate. It's not kind of like politics over here and your morality over here.

So I went to Central to go to law school, And I checked the curriculum. I had several other opportunities of school, but I looked at the Central's curriculum. They didn't have a course in Christianity or course in religion, and I wasn't required to take one. I said, "That's where I'm going."

CHRIS HAYES: So then what changed?

REV. DR. BARBER: My father never pushed me into ministry. I went on, did all my coursework. I got to my junior year. I became student government president at North Carolina Central right during the time, '84, '85, when Reverend Jackson was running for presidency of the United States, which was a tremendous time. I've worked some in that campaign, as did a lot of students at that time. But I then had this really epiphany, this experience. And it was strange because it was as though I was at a crossroads, and I had to make a decision. And I called my father and said, "Dad, I've been wrestling." He said, "I know."

Now understand, my father comes from old school spirituality. They used to say my grandmother was a seer and had interesting gifts, but he said, "I know." He said, "I would never push you, but now that you're wrestling with it, come home." And when I went home, he and I drove up and down the Atlantic coast ocean. I live near Manteo and Nags Head. And we just talked. And one of the things he said to me, he said, "You're going to have to decide whether or not that you really are concerned about the church, whether you can do more to help it from the outside or the inside."

And I wrestled with that, and I wrestled with my faith and my calling and what I believed about Jesus. And I chose at that point that I would accept the call and would then enter into seminary at Duke University.

CHRIS HAYES: Wow. Tell me a little bit about what your spiritual life was like. I mean, obviously there are so many facets to our religious upbringing, particularly in circumstances like yours. There's a social aspect, there's a familial aspect, an institutional aspect, a philosophical aspect. But at the core of it is belief. I mean, you know, my father was ... I was raised in the Catholic Church. My father was a Jesuit seminarian. He spent seven years.

REV. DR. BARBER: Mm, Jesuit.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, and he left. He felt a vocation when he was graduating, senior in high school, went, did seven years. Ultimately felt that his calling was to be a community organizer and left to do that. But for me fundamentally, my spiritual development was affected by that core sense of whether I believed or not. Did you always believe, was that always ...

REV. DR. BARBER: Well, I think faith is faith in search of understanding. I think there is a certain level of struggle and doubt even in the midst of faith.


REV. DR. BARBER: There's a scripture in the Bible where God actually says to Jesus, "Lord, I believe, but help thou my unbelief." I think people of deep faith can also have deep struggles and deep doubt. Look at some of the letters that were found by Mother Teresa after she passed. Look at some of the times that Dr. King struggled, that Frederick Douglass struggled. There's a story saying one time he was really struggling, and it was Harriet Tubman that hollered across the room, "Frederick, is God dead?" And it was her question to him that caused him to grab ahold to his faith.

I think in my tradition, being raised in ... My mother's a pianist and a hymnist, I was around a situation of prayer and faith and singing, but I also spent a lot of time with my father doing the praxis of faith. I traveled with him when I was really young. He used to tell people, in fact, "If my son can't come out, I'm not welcome.” And he did the same thing with my brother who just passed this year in February, my younger brother.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm sorry.

REV. DR. BARBER: You know, the church, my tradition, every four months, three months, we did foot washing to remind us that we had to serve our fellow person. I mean, literally doing this service, bringing out a basin and tying a towel around our waist and washing people's feet to remind us that the greatest call is to be a servant. So all of that impacted me. The work that my father and mother did. They did not see it as aside from their faith, but because of their faith, that it was a sense of calling that they came back to the South. It was a sense of being undergirded by the strength of God, if you will.

In seminary I had the chance to study under people like C. Eric Lincoln, who was a great, a religious sociologist, and Dr. William Turner, one of the leading pneumatologists, study of the Holy Spirit and praxis, and Frederick Herzog, who was a liberation theologian, and studied about Paul Tillich and some of the great theologians of the past. And C.G. Newson, the former dean of Howard Divinity School. So all of that has had something to do with my being shaped and called into ministry.

CHRIS HAYES: You did your graduate work to become a preacher at Duke University.

REV. DR. BARBER: I did. I had looked at some other schools, told my grandmother I was going to leave the state. I told you, she was a very interesting woman. One of my best friends. She prayed about it. She said, "I don't think you need to leave." I said, "Grandma, you don't understand. I have a scholarship." She said, "You can do what you want to, but I don't think so." And in less than two years, my father had a massive stroke, and if I had left, I'd have had to come back anyway. So I went to Duke and finished seminary at Duke University. Then my first pastorate was in Martinsville, Virginia, which is a very interesting area. Sometimes it looks like you've actually gone back in time. And later on, I did my doctorate degree at Drew University in pastoral care in public policy.

CHRIS HAYES: Now you've developed this role in North Carolina politics where, I've actually been in your church, I've watched you preach Sunday service. You are a full-time preacher, but also a full-time political activist, organizer. You started a movement a few years ago in North Carolina called Moral Mondays. What was the inspiration for that? What were moral Mondays?

REV. DR. BARBER: Yeah, and I kind of like to say I'm a public theologian. I've broken on public theology and public policy. And the reason I say that, Chris, is because I don't understand how you can be a pastor, and if your people are being impacted by the things, things that hurt their lives, and you not be engaged at seeking to see those things transform, that is very much orthodox Christianity. Jesus was both in the temple and in the streets. I mean, that's just the reality. The assembly was the prophets. They were the same way.

The Moral Mondays started as an outgrowth of what was called the Forward Together Moral Movement that was started in 2007. When Democrats control the General Assembly in North Carolina, I had just become president of the state NAACP. We sat down and looked at what were the issues that still were not being fully addressed. And then we looked at this model from the 1800s, the first Reconstruction, where black and white people fused together to push a more progressive agenda. And we took that as our model, formed something called the Forward Together Moral Movement. And inside of the first year or so, Chris, we did something that we had to push Democrats through. They'd been fighting for 15 years. And that was to expand early voting and same-day registration.

And we were able to push through the Racial Justice Act that had been, people had been fighting in silos for years. We said that there were 14 things that we needed to come together around even with ... Didn't matter who was in office, because a moral movement can't just look at who's in office. Well, after three years of that, in 2010, the Republicans, I call them extremists, Tea Party, they won in North Carolina. And the first thing they did was they passed a racist gerrymandering plan to guarantee that a minority would always control the majority of the General Assembly. It couldn't be vetoed by the Governor. We fought it and fought it. It got passed. And then in 2012, there was an election, and in 2013, they had a supermajority.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Largely thanks to those maps, which have subsequently been thrown out by the Supreme Court.

REV. DR. BARBER: Right, that we fought, the NAACP, and the groups I led, and others. Now, what happened Chris was this. We had always been pushing and protesting, even Democrats. But in 2013 in the first 50 days, these extremists decide, using biblical language, they were going to crucify everybody. They said they were going to crucify the sick. They blocked health care in a 15-minute session, didn't even allow doctors to testify, or people that would be impacted, no public hearings. They blocked living wages, they attacked women, they attacked the LGBT community. They cut billions of dollars from public education. And then, during Holy Week, they wrote a bill, passed a bill entitled Senate Bill 666.

CHRIS HAYES: That's a little on the nose.

REV. DR. BARBER: Now, the computer kicked it out like that. It was the worst voter suppression bill we'd ever seen.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh yeah, the Mark of the Beast Act. Yeah.

REV. DR. BARBER: Right. Then Chris, they tabled it. And in the House, they came up with House Bill 589 on photo ID. We said at that point, if they're going to crucify everybody and then try to take away people's voting rights along with what they were doing with gerrymandering, we had to go to a different level. And so in April of that year, we walked into the legislature, about 30 of us. They had told us we couldn't come into legislature, we couldn't bring placards in the legislature, we couldn't, we couldn't, we couldn't.

And 17 people decided to engage in non-violent civil disobedience. We were quoting scriptures, quoting the Constitution, talking about issues, and they arrested us. But it wasn't just my arrest. They arrested a woman with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair, and that's what picture came out the next day, right? And the next week, people came, and we didn't even ask. We were making the mistake like a lot of progressives, "We're going to do one rally, and tell them off, and go home."

CHRIS HAYES: That'll show them.

REV. DR. BARBER: That'll show them. And the people were like, "Uh-uh, no. We need to keep going, and we cannot stop." And it was there that Moral Monday was born, and it continued on all the way to the end of the session. And they saw something they did not expect, particularly out of the South. First of all it went from 50-some people to tens of thousands of people showing up every Monday. And then they saw nearly 1000 people, black, white, young, old, 12 to 13 percent Republicans, people from the West, people from the East, people in wheelchairs, everybody, joining together and risking arrest to fight for health care, living wages, respect for the LGBT community, and so forth and so on. And it continued.

And what we learned later, you can check this out in the public policy polling. They wrote something, we didn't know because we were doing that ... In the first five weeks, the Governor's numbers dropped to under 40, and he never recovered, and the legislature dropped to something like 17 or 19 percent, and they've never recovered. And the only reason they're in place now is because of the gerrymandering that's now been thrown out. We registered voters, we filed suits as soon as ... One of them said this, Chris, this is something your audience should hear. When the Shelby decision came down, one of the state senators says, "Now that the headache has been removed," and they pulled from that 666 Bill, added it to 589, and passed this voter suppression bill, and before the ink was dry, we filed suit against them. Took us four years, but we beat them.

CHRIS HAYES: I want to talk about how you apply the history of social solidarity between poor white people and black people in the South to today's movements, and we'll get into that right after this. We talk about finding inspiration in the fusion politics of the Reconstruction era, which to me is the most important era of American politics, and the most lost to history. There were movements of social solidarity between black people and white people in the Reconstruction era that were ultimately destroyed, but they existed. There were true movements of biracial solidarity. What did you learn from that history?

REV. DR. BARBER: Well, you learn first of all that if you are talking about transforming this country and you're not serious about dealing with the South, then you're not serious about transforming the country. That's number one. Number two, you learn that people can handle the truth. Those Reconstruction movements took race seriously, and I'm not talking about cultural racism. If you look at what Reconstruction was about, it was about policy. And they were able to find the linkage to show poor white people, their connection to black people, and black people their connection to white people, and how the persons that were the ones that were pushing the racism, pushing the division were actually hurting everybody. And so, you have to learn in this season to do that same kind of moral fusion.

CHRIS HAYES: But how do you unlock ... That's the great quest, right? You've got a system of racial hierarchy and terrorism and despoilment and ravage for hundreds of years in the South. It's an incredibly powerful institution. It's a defining institution. Everyone has their place in it. There's a very small group of elite whites at the top who are aristocrats, there's a much larger group of extremely poor whites, whose one sort of defining privilege is the fact that they are not slaves. And then beneath them, the slave class. And that's just the order of the world for hundreds of years. And there's always been this feeling about if you could unlock, if you could take those two different layers, the black folks of the South and the poor white folks of the South, and have them work with each other against the aristocrats, you can create something very powerful. But that's a difficult thing to overcome.

REV. DR. BARBER: It is difficult, but it was done, and it must be done today. For instance, what happened then is that as I said, poor whites began to see the connection that many black ministers and white ministers were at the forefront. We forget that, of this Reconstruction era, of this movement. Now we know it didn't last, it was full-fledged for about four years, from 1868 to 1872. It lasted longer, but it was under so much attack. And what did they attack? First of all, they attacked voting rights. They attacked government's money, tax cuts. They wanted tax cuts. They attacked health care. Remember the Freedmen's Bureau's hospitals that would help former slaves, freedmen and poor white people were all wiped out except for two by 1868.

CHRIS HAYES: The thing you just said, I want to put a pin in. It is an unknown historical fact that the Freedmen's Bureau provided services to poor white people throughout the South, that the Reconstruction project was not a racially-exclusive project, and the Freedmen's Bureau for the first time in basically in the history of the South brought public-accessible, public goods to people of all races at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the South.

REV. DR. BARBER: And if I could put a pin that that's one of the mistakes that I believe of how the health care piece has been pushed. We haven't rolled it out in the South and shown people in the South how it impacts them, and that's why you can get a state like North Carolina blocking 500,000 people getting health care, and 346,000 of them are white. And yet people think that it's primarily going to just minorities. But anyway, and they also went after the courts. We forget that by 1875 you had the Civil Rights Act of 1875 that made discrimination a felony. But after the Rutherford B. Hayes election in 1877, by 1883, that law was overturned by Supreme Court. There was only one person that dissented, and that was Justice Harlan from Kentucky, right? Who was the great dissenter, who also dissented when it came to the Plessy v. Ferguson.

Here's the point. King, in 1965, did one of his greatest speeches that most of the time we do not look at. Got to Montgomery after the sermon at Montgomery, and he goes through this whole thing about, "The aristocracy always sows division among poor whites and poor Blacks whenever there's the possibility of them to be a power to transform and bring into place the beloved community." What I think in this moment we're in Chris, when 40 percent now of the electorate are African Americans in the South, you've got large pockets of progressive whites, and Latinos, that's the work we're doing in the Poor People's Campaign. That's the work that Moral Monday set a model for in North Carolina. It is possible. We were the only state that blocked Trump down ticket. And we probably would have beat him if they didn't take 150 early voting sites. In North Carolina, we now have a progressive Supreme Court. A governor won in North Carolina even with Trump, the only other place, why? Not that there was a party there, there was a movement there. And a movement that embraced all people.

Image: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders as they set off from Selma on March 21, 1965. King is fourth from right, and Dr. Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, is third from right. They are wearing leis given to them by a Hawaiian group.AP

CHRIS HAYES: One of the amazing continuities, and North Carolina's been the front edge of this battle, you've referred to it, is the way in which racist white Democrats and the forces of white supremacy post-Reconstruction and the current forces of racial hierarchy and reactionary backlash now, both understand that the math of democracy is a challenge, right? So back in Reconstruction, all of a sudden you've taken all these people who weren't citizens, you've got three-fifths of their vote ...

REV. DR. BARBER: I would like to say they were citizens. They weren't allowed to be citizens.

CHRIS HAYES: They were not allowed to be citizens. But in a technical legal sense, right? The white power structure got three-fifths, for 60 percent of their votes for the representation in Congress, for all the things they needed, and then they didn't get to vote. All of a sudden, they're freed, you get the 14th, and the 15th, and then the 16th Amendment, they can vote, and now all those people are looking down the barrel, particularly in Mississippi and South Carolina where you've got ... So the same inexorable power of that math which leads to disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, rigging the courts, all that stuff then, is the same math that they're looking at now.

REV. DR. BARBER: Oh, no doubt. In fact, let's look at that math for a second, and let's step back a second into Reconstruction. You said that they were looking down the barrel. The most important two amendments of our Constitution in my estimation is, first, it's not the Second Amendment. It's the First Amendment, the right to freedom of speech and assembly, and the 14th Amendment that saved the Constitution. Because it says that every person has a right to equal protection under law. Not every citizen. And it's interesting that Trump and his administration want to go after that amendment. And many times even party, Democratic people are not talking about it.

Secondly, today as you said, if you take the former southern states, and this is why we're working so hard in these states. I've been in Appalachia, and in Alabama, pulling white and black people together, showing them this. Chris, when we go teach in those areas, we show five maps. First the map is every state that has high voter suppression since 2010. Then we overlay that with the map of the states with the highest poverty. Then we overlay the maps of the states that have the highest child poverty, and then the highest women in poverty, then the lack of health care, the lack of living wages, the tax on the LGBT community, and immigrants. And people in the room sometimes curse. I mean white people, they say, "Damn." I say, "Well I'm a preacher." They said, "We didn't know that." I said, "Yeah. There's a direct connection between race ..."

And here's the ugliness we've got to show people. The very people who engage in racist voter suppression and gerrymandering today, when they get that power, guess how they use it? To hurt mostly white people. There are 40 million more poor and low-wealth white people than there are black. People get power using race, then use the power to hurt in raw numbers. Why? Because if you take those former Confederate states, you get close to 170 electoral votes. If you can just control the 13 former Confederate states, you get 31 percent of the United States House of Representatives, and 26 members of the United States Senate.

Now here's what I think is the problem. Many times, Progressives and Democrats, instead of fighting for the South, with all of the possibilities and all of the demographic shifts, and I'm not just talking about doing the election, I'm talking about even when there's not election. They try to find some wall to win, without having to go through the South. And that's a losing strategy. At some point you've got to decide, just like Dr. King had to decide, just like Rabbi Heschel had to decide, Fannie Lou Hamer had to decide, that the South is like this place, but you're only going to break through if you have a moral fusion movement that connects the issue of the five of them, systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, militarism, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism. You've got to go straight at it and unpack them.

CHRIS HAYES: Okay. But the argument on the other side is that you want to take a run at the fortress of Southern white supremacy, and God knows that that's an absolutely righteous calling. But the strategic argument, I'm not endorsing it, I'm just saying what the strategic argument is, is like look, they built that fortress over 400 years, and it's powerful as hell, and it's tough to get over the walls, and they're barricaded in there, and there's other places where you could attack more efficiently.

REV. DR. BARBER: Okay, well my argument to that was number one, if you want to be biblical, in the 400th year of the slaves get released, and they read the Bible. So if you want to be theological about it, but also, keep losing. Keep ignoring the new demographics. People are reading the South like it was 10 years ago. Watch this. Look at what Stacey Abrams did without hardly any help. Look at what we did in North Carolina. Look at what happened in Florida. Look at the fact that Epsy took four counties that Trump had won in Mississippi. What could he have done if there was a full embracing instead of this sense, "Oh well, we can't. Well ..." what if Labor, years ago, had said, "Oh well, we can't win." What if the Civil Rights Movement had set out to Plessy, "Oh well, we can't win." What if women, Sojourner Truth, and Lucretia Mott, the Quaker that fought for women's suffrage, said, "Oh well, we can't win."

To me that is actually the wrong thing to do. What we have to do is choose to battle, and choose to organize, and put the resources and the organizing where it needs to be, and we've got models. Right now, if you really, really did a deep dive focus in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, and maybe even Alabama, they fundamentally can shift, but you've got to believe that, and then you've got to act as though you believe it in the way you work.

CHRIS HAYES: Well to me the thing that betrays the fact that they can fundamentally shift is the actions of the Republican majority that has taken every opportunity to create conditions through gerrymandered maps and voter suppression, because obviously they think it's a threat, right? You're not seeing the same thing ... There are Republican-controlled states in the North, in the far North in Mountain West, where you don't see the same systematic assault, because they're not as worried.

REV. DR. BARBER: Even though gerrymandering started in the North, because of immigrants, which is a history we don't talk about. But watch this, Chris. Now, I'm owning a lot of stuff on your show. You're a good Catholic, so I'm acting like this is confession to some degree, even though it's open. Look, I could hustle a little pool in my day, all right? Oh God, now that's going to be in the Fox News Network. I used to hustle a little pool. You don't cheat somebody you can beat straight up. Whenever I played pool, I only snookered people or hid the ball or put it behind when I was afraid of their game.

Look, if people have to number one, engage in the worst voter suppression we've seen since the 60s, the worst gerrymandering since Jim Crow, if they have to go all the way to Russia and get help, if they have to lie every turn to get help, if they have to racialize things they realize the people really understood, if you vote, you get health care, if you vote you're going to get some living wages, if you vote the right way. If they have to do all of that to beat you, don't you recognize that they are afraid, and they know what you should know? And that is, that if the flip side became true, they cannot win. They cannot win.

But Chris, I am convinced, and that's why we formed now the Poor People's Campaign, a national call for a moral revival. We've now got 41 states, with people organizing in 41 states across this country, thousands and thousands of people hoping to hook up more than a million people connected to this campaign. We've got a hearing on Capitol Hill, we're announcing a major mobilization for 6/2020 called the Mass Poor People's Assembly March on Washington. Why? Because ultimate check history, parties never pushed us to progressivism. It was always moral movements that pushed the political structure to do what it should do.

CHRIS HAYES: What do you say to ... There's a certain strain of sort of resurgent pessimism about the future of American racial hierarchy, and I think it's grounded in a lot of hard truths about America, which is just the endurance of white supremacy, and white supremacy, and white racial hierarchy as a motivating factor to produce an economy and the policies that are more reactionary than most of the other OECD countries, right? We do not provide the same level of a social safety net, universal health care, and things like that in the way that other countries do, and a lot of people say, "Look, it's," and I think there's a good argument, right, that it's born of the power of white supremacy, the emotional and psychological wage of whiteness that's given to people to get them to ally along racial lines as opposed to whether their class interests or material interests. And that ever will it be thus? That there's a... That is just the eternal truth about the American experiment, and we're all Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill and then watching it roll down again. How do you think about that?

REV. DR. BARBER: Well I see it a little different from some perspective. First of all, as I walk around, I am a picture of the possibility of true moral fusion. I'm part white, part Tuscarora Indian, and part black. All of that runs through my veins just as a human being, all right?

Secondly, I pastor in a denomination that's predominantly white and yet has a deep commitment to social justice and racial justice and believes we have to take the two seriously. Thirdly, I just believe part of the problem with the race piece is, number one, too often we tinker around with it. In this culture, we don't get all upset about racists, somebody burns a cross or somebody says the bad word or something like that, and even Charlottesville, as ugly as it was, as ugly as it was, people will say, "I'm against Charlottesville," and a lot of people would do that, but if you check their voting record, they're engaged in systemic racism everyday in their policies.

Image: White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia
White nationalists march at the University of Virginia on the eve of a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville in 2017.Alejandro Alvarez / Reuters file

One of the things we have to do is we're going to have to turn this thing around. And there's a book that talks about how cultural racism comes after policy racism. That you decide you want slavery, then you put in place bad biology, evil economics, sick sociology, and a heretical ontology. We've got to decide, first of all, that we're going to expose the lie that racism doesn't just hurt black people.

That's why I always start my penetration point for racism, it's voter suppression because then you can make the linkage to talk to the 140 million poor and low wealth people and show them the linkage. We did a study, Chris, and this is important, how we talk about and disaggregate numbers, by our Institute for Policy Studies and others. We commissioned a study called the Souls of Poor Folk, or Souls of Poor Folk, Auditing America 50 Years After the Poor People's Campaign.

Two or three things came up. Number one, we removed poverty out of the political discourse, worst thing we could have ever done, and race as moral issues. So you go through 26 presidential election debates in 2016, not one of them was on poverty. Not one whole debate was on poverty even though 43.5 percent of your people live in poverty and low wealth.

Number two, not one of them is about voter suppression and gerrymandering and restoring the Voting Rights Act, even though in 2016, you have less voting rights than you had in 1965 when the Voting Rights was passed on August the 6th.

That kind of anemic, weak political debate and discourse keeps us in a rut. It's not honest. It's not for real. So we did this study, and when we did this study, we disaggregated all the numbers. Most time if you talk about poverty, people say, "Well, there are more black people in poverty." That's not true. There's more of a concentration of poverty among black people, but in raw numbers, there's more white people in poverty.

We have to have movements and debates that deal with these real issues, and when I go to a place like Harlan County, Kentucky, Chris, and I'm in the room with the Hatfields and the McCoys, we have this honest, hard conversation, and then they join up with the Poor People's Campaign. Same thing in West Virginia or down in Alabama when Kelly Greer, who's a mother who lost a child because Alabama wouldn't expand healthcare, she's now embracing white women, and they're forming a force together to build a movement together.

We have come up and down because we've never really fully unpacked how the intersection of race and poverty and how it hurts everybody.

CHRIS HAYES: So that's interesting to me. So what you're saying is your understanding of what you call cultural racism is a post hoc rationalization of the institutions of extraction and oppression, right? That is not that racism created slavery. It's that slavery created racism. Right? That the institution and extraction and oppression comes first and then a justification is created.

REV. DR. BARBER: We started with indentured servants that were white from England. Then we started trying to do the Native community. Of course, the whole genocide and that first racism is a whole other conversation that we have to be in the middle of this.

But then we say, "Aha, we can do this." Slavery. So then we come up with they're not human. According to the Bible, they don't have a soul. According to Genesis, it was meant this way. Biologically, you can determine brain size by skin color. Sociologically, they can't be in close proximity or marry white people.

Then you come up with this evil economics, the end justifies the means. And then the worst thing of it all, going back to what I just said early, is this heretical ontology, that God intended it this way. So then racism is not just a sociological or a political theory, it becomes a way people understand ultimate reality.

And that is entrenched, but you can't unpack that by tinkering around the edges.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, that's my point is that for you, the way you work back through that, is that you don't go with the cultural aspects, you go with the underlying structures as the first thing you attack. Right? So as opposed to, "Well, we need to have conversations about cultural racism." To you, your way in is, "No, we should talk about who has power and who doesn't, who has health care and who doesn't."

REV. DR. BARBER: And how race is used to pull a blinders over people who actually would benefit from something. Let's go through three with him real quick. You want to talk to me about racism? I don't want know about you had a... That's why that governor bothered me in Tennessee. My brother had just died a week earlier. I was not in a mood. He died from pancreatic cancer in 30 days. I was not in a mood to be played with.

And when I got on the stage, the governor asked me for a picture. I said I don't do those kind of pictures. And then he starts talking about, "I'm with Martin Luther King because I tutor a black person." I was like uh-uh (negative). No, where do you stand on health care? Where do you stand on this racist voter suppression in this state? Where do you stand on living wages? And do you understand that there's a racist content in opposition to all of that? That health care, the Obamacare, it was framed from a racist perspective deliberately.

Living wages is framed and somehow is just people who are less lazy or just don't really need it anyway. Social net program were framed from Reagan and others as being something that's going to help some lazy black person properly, when actually the majority of the people benefit from them are white. And we can't tinker around the edges.

You want to talk to me about racism? Let's talk about racist voter suppression. Let's talk about racism that's part of this immigration battle. You know this wouldn't be happening, Chris, if these were white kids down at the border, or wealthy black kids for that matter. Let's deal with that. Let's deal with the prison industrial complex. Let's deal with high poverty, racially resegregated schools, and let's deal with the racism that continues to impact the First Nation community. That's what I want to talk about.

And then, I don't want to have that conversation by itself. Let's link that to poverty. Let's talk about the tax cut that we went through with Trump shifted more money back to the hands of the already wealthy than was transferred during slavery, in some sense. Let's talk real. Let's talk about the racial impact. Even tax cuts, where does that come from?

The first big arguments about cutting taxes happened during Reconstruction, and it was an attempt to deconstruct Reconstruction by arguing-

CHRIS HAYES: All the arguments are there. It's hilarious.


CHRIS HAYES: You go back, and they're saying, and it's very funny because it's exactly the same thing. They say oh, it's all tax and spend. It's all the government. Even back then, it's so funny because we think of back then as so different from our time, but even back then, people are actually shamed enough to often not make explicitly racist arguments.

REV. DR. BARBER: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: There is enough shame around racism, particularly in the wake of the 600,000 dead men who had fallen in this great war and the moral shame of slavery, which now casts a pall. They actually make arguments... When they say poll taxes, and literacy tests, and grandfather tests, that's so that they don't have to make explicitly racist arguments.

REV. DR. BARBER: Exactly.

CHRIS HAYES: When they talk about getting rid of the Freedmen's Bureau and of how it's about big government, and it's tax and spend, it's all the same stuff but they're making it in these facially race neutral ways, but it's the same rhetoric.

REV. DR. BARBER: What's the book that says, there was one that came out, “No More Racists”, and it says but you have to learn the codewords. And what did Lee Atwater say about the Southern strategy? We're going to talk in a way that doesn't sound explicitly racist, but it is racist. It's designed to separate people.

If they're designing something to separate people, we have to work to bring people together and unpack. So, for instance, we have to talk to people about this 140 million poor people and how systems of racism, particularly our voter suppression, undermined the ability to elect people that are going to address it.

We have to deal with the fact of 37 million people without health care and how that connects to the way the power structure is shaped by either voter suppression, gerrymandering, or the racist continuation of the Electoral College. We have to talk about the fact that there are four million people that get up every morning and can’t buy unleaded gas and can't buy unleaded water. We have to look at the fact that $0.53 of every discretionary dollar is now going to military and not to social domestic programs to lift up the poor. And why is that? Because poor has been defined in an isolated way as those people over there.

CHRIS HAYES: So, I guess my question to you is what... It's interesting, this conversation, we haven't talked about Trump very much, I think, which is great, actually because I think what I hear from you is he's so far down the cascading light of cause that he doesn't... All the stuff that you're talking about has been so developed over so long, and he is just the result of. He's not the-

REV. DR. BARBER: Nell Painter at Princeton said Trump is the iconography of a too often repeated American reality. He's a symptom, and he's a symptom of both what they're doing and what Democrats don't do.

CHRIS HAYES: Can I ask you this, though? I sometimes will struggle with this because I'm basically an atheist, not in any kind of-

REV. DR. BARBER: You know I told Bill Maher was too. I told Bill Maher, if you want to tell me-

CHRIS HAYES: That's called lying for the Lord, I think.

REV. DR. BARBER: No, I told Bill Maher, if you to convince me that the way of God is to hate gay people, to be against abortion, to be for prayer in school, be for guns, and for taxes, I'm an atheist for God too.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Well, I think they do damage, actually, to the Church in that respect, but I guess what I would say is that I'm not an atheist in any sort of committed indoctrinatory way, but generally if you said do I believe in God, I'd say no I don't, but... But my question to you is you sound more hopeful about the potential of this fusion politics, of these coalitions to be built. To me, the only destiny we can embrace that will mean avoiding the disasters that might befall us is true genuine multiracial democracy. Right?

For the first time ever in the nation's history we actually do the thing, and we put people together, and we each see each other as humans, fully deserving of equitable treatment, and we join in solidarity and we create a democracy that works for all of us, and it's the first time that we've ever really done that at a national scale.

That seems to be a daunting project, but it's what I believe in. But I guess my question to you is there a way for me to get your level of hope without Scripture?

REV. DR. BARBER: Well, there it is, but let me start with some and then let me come beyond Scripture. First of all, I come out of a tradition, if you look at the Hebrew Scriptures, where Pharaoh was not seen as final, but Pharaoh was seen as a gateway to the Promised Land. I come out of a scriptural tradition where good news happens on the cross in the graveyard, that's the resurrection.

Okay, you said well what does that have to do with, what if I'm not a person of faith? Okay. I've tried to study all of the movements that brought us the progressive things we hope and believe in today, and what point were they most threatened? And what were the devotees doing in that moment?

Let me give you one example. In 1857, I believe it was, a Supreme Court justice presides over the Dred Scott decision. You look back at that justice, he probably should have never made it to the Supreme Court. The Dred Scott decision happens. Now people say the abolition movement is over, and Frederick Douglass gives a speech, and he talks about how ugly it is. He talks about how nasty it is.

But then he begins to say, "But everything that has been done to stop the abolition movement has only served to fuel its determination." And he becomes more determined after that. He really believes that evil and wrong has this inherent destructive quality. It always overreaches. And so in that sense, when I look at Trump, I see that as an overreach. When I see these folks now just exposing their ugliness, just exposing their corruptness. McConnell and Lindsey... And I see some Democrats that probably wouldn't be as strong as they are now if it hadn't have gone that way.

I'm not suggesting I'm glad that it went that way, but I'm suggesting that when you look down through history, we've had some bad times. You know, this really isn't worse than slavery. It's not worse than the Holocaust, what we're in the middle of. It's not worse than the genocide against our Native people. And you have to look to those people and look to those leaders that fought back. Like Paul Tillich said, when I study him, Paul Tillich says, "Listen, whatever you believe when you are threatened with non-being, that is your God. That is your God. You can call it whatever, and you have to at some point, have the courage to be."

One of the Scriptures, and Chris, King and others use to say in the Civil Rights Movement, it's in Hebrews chapter 10, it says, "We are not of those who shrink back until destruction, but we are those who persevere until the salvation of the soul, for faith is the substance of things to hope for, the evidence of things not seen."

You don't even have to be a Christian to understand that's how you've got to live life sometimes. You just have to make one decision. Do I stand here and die? Do I shrink back? Or do I believe that some things are so fundamental, some things are so precious, some things that are so loving, some things are so just and so true that even if it means fighting with my last breath, I'm going to fight for them and I'm going to win because I'm either going to do one of two things. I'm going to win or I'm going to sow the seeds of the victory yet to come.

CHRIS HAYES: All right, Reverend Will, if I could just get a sermon like that every day for about 15 minutes. If I could just dial in around 6:00 every day. Reverend Barber, who is a preacher, a public theologian, works with the Poor People's Movement, it's such a great pleasure and honor to talk to you every time we get to talk. Thank you, Reverend.

REV. DR. BARBER: Thank you, man. We love your show. God bless you.

CHRIS HAYES: Thank you. God bless you.

Once again, my great thanks to Reverend Doctor Barber, who is Co-Chair of the Poor People's Campaign. He's President and Senior Lecturer of the Repairers of the Breach. He's got two books, Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing and The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear. A truly remarkable guy.

You could go and watch speeches he's given on YouTube, which are, as you can tell from just listening to him speak in this podcast, are incredible. He has an amazing voice and delivery and way of addressing folks, so go check him out on YouTube. We'll have links up on our page.

One thing that I'm curious to hear your feedback on, and we love to hear your feedback. You can Tweet us #WITHpod or email us I'm curious what you guys think about intros. Some people write back and they say they really like the intros. They like six, seven minute wind-up monologue rants, whatever. Other people are like just get to the interview. I don't need your takes, Chris Hayes. You're giving me takes all the time. You've got five hours’ worth of takes at night. I don't need more takes. I don't need more Chris Hayes takes in my life.

So, I'm curious what people think. I'm genuinely curious. I can go either way. Sometimes I have things I need to get off my chest. Sometimes I think shorter intros are better, but just polling you the WITHpod listeners. Tiffany Champion standing by to read your emails on more Chris Hayes takes or fewer Chris Hayes takes. No, but do you like intros or not? Shorter intro/longer intro? Let us know. Tweet us #WITHpod. Email us

Related links:

The Souls of Poor Folks

Poor People's Campaign

Organizing in Trump Country with George Goehl

Building a Progressive Majority with Dorian Warren

“Why is this Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the All In team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mention here, by going to