As the keynote speaker of the One Movement Gospel Brunch and Family Session July 29, one of the final events of the 107th National Urban League Annual Conference in St. Louis, the Rev. William Barber II tied scripture to the current political climate of America – and the importance of doing the work for equality, justice and helping the poor.
“The story of Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego and Nebuchadnezzar provides us some lessons from the past that inform us in the present,” said the civil rights leader, who is pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., North Carolina NAACP president and creator of the Moral Mondays Movement.
Using the third chapter of the book of Daniel, he drew parallels between Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and the rise of Donald Trump.
“Nebuchadnezzar was a narcissistic egomaniac who loved to build buildings and put his name on them,” Barber said.
He told the audience that Nebuchadnezzar’s name in Hebrew means “one who will do anything to hold onto power,” and that when the king came to power he oppressed the Hebrew people.
“They were former slaves, and he was oppressing them in this historical moment because they were growing in power and influence and he saw this as the last chance to stop a growing diversity,” Barber said.
“He wanted to control their influence. He wanted to control their wealth. He wanted to control their faith. He even wanted to control their health. I don’t know why y’all are getting so excited. I’m talking about something that was 2,600 years ago.”
Barber called on the masses to be like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in this era that mirrors the reign of Nebuchadnezzar.
“Bowing down is not an option,” Barber said.
Weaving in political history, Barber reminded a capacity audience that the phenomenon of Trump was nothing new – that when transformative change is on the horizon that threatens to give the power to the people, a “narcissistic egomaniac” emerges and rises to power.
He used the period after slavery known as Reconstruction as a prime example.
“The laws were rewritten. Voting rights were provided,” Barber said. “In Southern states, Blacks and poor whites started working together. They took over every legislature in the South. Blacks and progressive poor whites figured out that it was the rich slave masters that made the poor whites fight in the Civil War and they were in the same boat as Black people.”
Barber then spoke of the “deconstruction” pushback that began in 1872.
“The former slave owners began to take over the courts. They ended the discussions about living wages that began,” Barber said. “In 1868, Southern constitutions were written that said every person had the right to the enjoyment of their labor – because having labor without enjoyment is a pseudo form of slavery.”
He said the Ku Klux Klan was formed in 1872 initially to attack the white people who were working with Black people.
“Deconstruction” was put on the fast track with the Compromise of 1877 — which led to Rutherford B. Hayes becoming president.
“They had an election in 1877 and one candidate lost the popular vote, but he was a narcissistic maniac and he wanted power,” Barber said. “He went to the Southern states and he said, ‘If you give me the Electoral College, I’ll turn the South back over to you. I will pull the troops out. I will appoint who you want on the Supreme Court.’ And they did. By 1883, the Civil Rights Act was overturned. By 1896, Plessy vs. Ferguson was passed that made segregation the law of the land.”
They took that economic power from Black people and progressive whites. And by 1901, all of the Black people who were elected during Reconstruction had been run out of office. This helped lead to the formation of the Urban League in 1910.
“You all came into existence to deal with Black migration,” Barber said. “Black people weren’t leaving the South because they wanted to leave. They left because they were being lynched. Lynching was terrorism, and Black men would leave their families and go North. The Urban League was founded to deal with this migration, because folks were leaving lynching in the South and ending up in ghettos in the North.”
The Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis was formed in direct response to the East St. Louis Race Riots of 1917.
As he brought them to present day, he issued a warning.
“The election of Donald Trump is a symptom of a deeper matter,” Barber said. “I’m not talking Democrat or Republican, I’m talking about something of a spiritual matter, and you can play around with it if you want to. Y’all are talking about, ‘We’ve never seen this before.’ That means two things: You weren’t paying attention to history, or they didn’t teach it to you in history.”
According to Barber, the 2016 election was really about undermining the influence of black, brown and progressive people.
“Everybody knew he wasn’t qualified to be president. But he was qualified to be the reaction to this notion of a black man with a black wife, a black mother-in-law and black children living in a white house built by slaves. It messed some people up.”
Barber said Trump is a tool to attempt to block what he referred to as a third reconstruction.
“The first reconstruction was from 1868-1880. The second reconstruction was from 1954-1968 , when Black and brown and white people came together — particularly in the South,” Barber said. “And when we broke through the Southern Strategy and elected President Obama, that represented the possibility of a third reconstruction. What we see happening is a Nebuchadnezzar spirit that is trying to block the transformation of America. Nebuchadnezzar might be dead, but the spirit — that narcissistic stuff still lives.”
According to Barber, the proof is in the 22 states that have passed voter suppression laws.
“Those 22 states represent 54 percent of America, 44 United States Senate seats and 51 percent of Congress,” Barber said. “All of these states that passed these laws have high poverty, the lack of a living wage and denied Medicaid stature. There’s a direct correlation between racism, classism and injustice — and it begins with the vote.”
“What bothers me is that they are so loud on things that God is so quiet about,” Barber said of today’s politicians and evangelicals.
“They are so loud on anti-abortion. They are so loud attacking the gay community. They are so loud on trying to make Jesus an original member of the NRA. There might be three scriptures in the Bible about homosexuality — and most of them are misinterpreted — and none of them trump the scripture ‘You have to love your neighbor as you love yourself.’”
Barber pointed out several of the 2,500 scriptures he says refer to how God instructs people to treat the poor — or “the least of these.”
“The Nebuchadnezzar spirit doesn’t want us to know that, because they want our faith to be messed up,” Barber said. “That’s why they didn’t want the slaves to read about liberation, so they took charcoal and put it over all the scriptures that talked about deliverance.”
He shared sobering statistics about poverty, suggesting that the Urban League and other civil rights organizations come together with the community to finish the work of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, which ended with his assassination in 1968.
“There are 50 million people in the United States who are considered poor. Without social security, more than half of Americans over 65 would be in poverty. There are 24 million women living below the poverty line. There are 14 million poor children in America 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. There are 10 million African Americans — 24 percent — living under the poverty line,” Barber said.
“There are 12 million Hispanic people living below the poverty line. But watch this: There are 17 million white people living below the poverty line. So you get power through racism, but then use that power to hurt mostly whites and fool them into thinking that you are somehow hurting the ‘undeserved’ poor.”
Gov. Eric Greitens was name checked for political crimes against the poor.
“Whether it’s a president or a governor — like the one in the state of Missouri — the Bible said in Isaiah 10: ‘Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights,’” Barber said. “Ezekiel 22 says your politicians have become like wolves where they devour the poor people.”
He closed by suggesting that there be a movement to finish Dr. King’s work by forming a “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego Coalition” to push back against the political opposition that targets the poor and blocks progress.
“These are fiery times, there’s no need for me to lie to you,” Barber said. “But don’t you know if you stand in the fire that my God will stand with you?”
Then the audience leapt to their feet in thunderous affirmation of his message. — (AP)