01 February, 2020

Rev. William Barber on the Political Power of Poor People: ‘We Have to Change Our Whole Narrative’

 So when we go in a place like, say, eastern Kentucky in Appalachia, I don’t change what I say about race there. That’s what politicians do. I don’t do that. I say y’all, let’s do something. And we put up maps. And we say, now in West Virginia, you have voter suppression, and we put that map up. And then we say, did you also know in West Virginia you have a high level of poverty. We’ll do child poverty. Then we’ll do women in poverty, then we do the denial of health care, then we do denial of living wages, denial of union rights, denial of LGBTQ rights, denial of women’s rights. And then we step back and say, do you see the thing about this national map? The same states that do the race thing are doing this to you too.
And I had one white guy in Appalachia who stood up and said, “DAMN!” I’m not being facetious. He said, “Reverend Barber, they’ve been playing us.” And I said that’s right. We were there in Kentucky, and some people told us not to go to Harlan County. Harlan County, where Justice Harlan came from, the only Supreme Court justice that voted against Plessy v. Ferguson. Harlan County, where Lyndon B. Johnson started the War on Poverty. Democrats hadn’t been to Harlan County since I don’t know when. I mean, they just write it off. But we had 300 folk in the middle of the day turn out.
I went outside with one guy and he said, “I’m a McCoy.” I said, “What kind of McCoy?” He said again, “I’m a McCoy.” And then I said, “Yes sir, I understand.” He said, “We ready to fight.” I told him this is a nonviolent movement. He said, “I get it, but let me tell you, you’ve got a lot of friends up here.” I told him, “Wait a minute, people tell me this is Trump country. Why did folk vote for Trump?”
He said, “Look, we knew Trump was … ” and he used an expletive. He said, “Folks are hurting, and needed more attention, they want people to know.” Democrats haven’t been back here since Lyndon B. Johnson came back here. These hills are full of people who, if you came out here and talked to them and didn’t just write them off as ignorant and let them know you were serious about addressing the issue, even if you didn’t totally change the county, you could close the margins — i.e., what just happened.