A leading progressive voice from the South delivered a spirited, Saturday-morning sermon downtown Minneapolis Aug. 16, making a scripture-based appeal for social justice and leading a “March for Equity” along Nicollet Mall.
“We have a tale of two cities, whether it’s up north or down south,” Rev. Dr. William Barber II told a crowd of more than 150 people gathered in Peavey Plaza. “In America we are both the richest and the poorest nation in the world, and it is a scar on our moral integrity.”
Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, has staked a progressive claim to the moral high ground in his Bible Belt state. With an act of civil disobedience at the state’s legislative building in April 2013, he sparked the “Moral Mondays” campaign, a grassroots revival of anti-poverty, pro-worker activism that has spilled into neighboring states.
“These are not just policy issues,” Barber said. “It’s not a left-versus-right debate or a conservative-versus-liberal debate. These issues form the centerpiece of our faith, the very soul of our democracy.”
Since Barber’s initial arrest – he was leading a protest of efforts to restrict voting rights in North Carolina – the “Moral Mondays” campaign has grown, drawing support from a diverse group of religious and community groups.
Thousands of people have joined weekly demonstrations in Raleigh, and more than 900 have been arrested for protesting a wide range of conservative bills passed by the Legislature, including cuts to unemployment benefits, health care and public education.
Cutting programs that lift people out of poverty, Barber said, goes against the teachings of Christ.
“If you’re going to put your hand on a Bible and swear yourself into public office, you ought to know what’s in that Bible,” he said. While many right-wing lawmakers focus on divisive issues, like gay marriage or prayer in schools, he added, “none of them trump the scripture that says you must love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
“When we put the poor at the center – and not the margins – of our agenda, that’s what equity looks like,” Barber said.
The March for Equity was part of a weekend-long series of events organized by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers as a kickoff to the 2014 election push. Union members will work to elect candidates who support not only public schools, but policies that lift families out of poverty, so that students in their classes are in a better position to learn.
It’s a mission – and a message – the teachers’ union in St. Paul carried into its contract campaign earlier this year. Several members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers joined the march in Minneapolis.
“Our families and students do better if parents are earning a living wage, if they have access to health care and affordable housing,” SPFT member Sue Snyder said. “We need to come together for all people – for students, for families, for the community – so we can all do better.”
Barber, SPFT member Ellen Olsen added, is a progressive “rock star” whose Moral Mondays campaign embodies the type of organizing work teachers are aiming to do.
“This is not a special interest thing,” Olsen said. “They have been building bridges and community relationships for a long time. And that’s what we need to do, that’s what we’ve been trying to do in St. Paul.
“We’ve got so many different people working on different things – we’ve got to come together. That’s where the power is, in numbers.”