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Moral Revival: Star Preacher Brings ‘Poor People’s Campaign’ To Louisville


Few people sat in the pews, but the pulpit was packed.

The group standing behind the Rev. William Barber nodded with his cadence and erupted in applause, almost on cue.

The preacher seemed not to mind the small crowd gathered in the church — and a video of his message would later be viewed more than 15,000 times on Facebook.

Barber is a rising star among progressive politicos. A former president of the North Carolina NAACP, he rose to political prominence last year when he delivered a fiery speech at the Democratic National Convention.

These days, Barber is touring the country. He's making stops in conservative states to push his progressive message – a movement that he says picks up on Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign.

"We're coming together," Barber said. "White and black and brown and red and young and old and gay and straight, it doesn't matter."

Barber’s message is unabashedly liberal. He stumps for universal healthcare, public education and environmental justice. He criticizes union-busting legislation and voter suppression efforts, and on Thursday he took direct aim at Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

Barber's visit to Louisville came just weeks after violent clashes between white nationalists and anti-racist protesters in Chartlottesville, Virginia.

And his message of intersectionality — a plea for people to bridge racial divides to fight for common goals — seemed to resonate with both those who came to the church to hear him speak, and others unaware of his visit.

'Racism is about policy'

Joseph Jackson spends most days beneath the shade tree in his backyard. The yard is cluttered with grills and a garden. A bag of tools sits open on a table.

Jackson, 72, is retired, but not by choice. He's been fighting cancer for 18 years.

He doesn't watch much news, but he's aware of the country's tensions.

"A lot of it ain't right," he said.

Jackson is black and lives in Shawnee — a mostly black neighborhood.

When he was a younger man, he and his friends dated girls in Portland, a mostly white neighborhood.

"We had to run when we came through there," he said. "White guys would be out there."

These days, it's not as bad, he said. But it's not good, either.

As a young man, he marched for equal rights. These days, white supremacists are marching to take away those rights, he said.

He's not too worried, he said, because people are pushing back.

People like the Rev. William Barber.

Barber, though, directs his message away from the extremists. Instead, he pushes his supporters to fight against racist policies — not people.

"If you only talk about extremes, you miss what racism is about," Barber said. "Racism is about policy."

He said any policy that hurts people of color will ultimately hurt white people, too.

Jackson's neighborhood is plagued with poverty and blight — the result of systemic racism and policies that left the city segregated.

Jackson didn't know anything about Barber's rally just a few blocks away — but he echoed the message, nonetheless.

He said if politicians would consider people, as a whole, instead of just certain groups — entire communities could be improved. And if people would work together for the greater human good, and not just themselves, we'd all be better for it.

"United we stand, divided we fall," he said.

Come Together

Barber made a quick exit when he finished his speech.

Before he stepped out of the church, Barber stressed that white supremacists don't make up the majority of white people. And it takes more than denouncing the minority to eradicate the policies that hurt the majority of poor, working-class Americans — black and white.

"If the forces of extremism are cutting and hurting all of us, then all of us should come together and stand against the policies — not the people," he said.

After Barber left, a few more speakers addressed the crowd before the group joined hands and sang a song.

State Representative Attica Scott was among the crowd. Last year, she became the first black woman elected to the Kentucky State Legislature in two decades.

She said she has faith in Barber's progressive movement — despite the divides that exist in Louisville and across the country.

"We are all in this together, and the only way we win together is if we work together," Scott said.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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