Barber: America’s ‘moment’ calls for voter rights, action on racism

Bishop William L. Barber of the Poor People's Campaign spoke to States Newsroom reporters and editors via videoconference on Aug. 7. 2020. (Screen shot from video)

A national champion of civil rights on Friday said the timing is right to restore the Voting Rights Act, address systemic racism, and install policies to ease poverty. 

“Something is at stake. It’s more than just a moment. The very lifeblood of this democracy is at stake,” said the Rev. William Barber.

“If we can’t get it right in the midst of this pandemic that has revealed how much racism and poverty are a national security issue, then God help us as a nation. But if we get it right, then maybe we can pay homage to all of those who have died, by building a new world and new states and a new America,” Barber added.

Barber is a national board member for the  National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, NAACP, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. 

Barber, a political activist, spoke to a group of reporters and editors from States Newsroom, a national nonprofit news organization covering government and public policy in state capitals around the country. Iowa Capital Dispatch is part  of the network.

Some of the work will mean action by people such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has failed for “2,600 days, or seven years,” to repair the Voting Rights Act and has allowed voter suppression, Barber said.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, was the youngest and last surviving member of the Big Six civil rights activists who led the fight to end legalized segregation and overturn Jim Crow laws. He was arrested dozens of times and also beaten as a Freedom Rider. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would restore the main parts of the act struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court and would name the legislation for civil rights leader John Lewis, a long-time representative. Lewis died last month. 

“We have a serious moment,” Barber said, invoking the memory of George Floyd, the man who died after a Minneapolis policeman knelt on his neck for more than 8 minutes. “This is what is at stake in America.” Barber called for stiff federal penalties for cases like the killing of Floyd.

Barber said America’s problems related to racism and poverty have been exacerbated by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ support of private schools, “undermining an already underfunded public education system,” and President Trump’s downplaying of COVID-19 risks. 

“After you created all this chaos, you want to send the children and teachers back into a lethal situation,” Barber said. “Not only is that immoral, it’s illogical. It actually makes no sense at all.”

Iowa has been embroiled in a controversy over Gov. Kim Reynolds’ increasingly powerful calls for school districts to focus on in-person classes. The governor cites a state law passed last session showing preference for students attending classes at school rather than online.  

Barber also called for Congress to more clearly describe the effects of tax cuts on low-income families. 

“We had 87 million who were uninsured or underinsured before COVID. Now we have 27 million more people without health care because they lost their jobs,” Barber said. 

“We’re talking about 10 (million) to 17 million families who are food insecure and it could go as high as 50 (million) or 60 million people and what is McConnell holding out for — $250 billion in tax breaks for the wealthy and $20 billion for the military that they didn’t even ask for,” he added.

Barber said his organizations plan appearances around the country to highlight the issues, and have developed briefing sheets for each state.