In our assessment of social movements in U.S. and world history, the Kairos Center has concluded that movements begin with the telling of untold stories. These stories start to break through the false narratives and myths that hold up unjust social, political and economic systems; and in telling their stories, those most impacted by those systems break through their own isolation and emerge as leaders in their communities, who can connect with emerging leaders, as they, too, find their voice. These stories relay more than the crushing details of their struggles. They contain also the lessons of those struggles and insights on how to organize to win.

As we have studied poor people’s organizing including the Abolitionist Movement, Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union and labor movement, civil rights movement, welfare rights organizing, homeless organizing, the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign and more, we have seen the power of these stories to shift the social consciousness and prepare the way for a new society to be born. This is why identifying leaders and lifting up their stories is part of the Kairos Center’s methodology for social transformation. Through truth commissions, hearings, cultural expression, audio-visual media, and social media, we collect and compile these stories to develop an exact and positive knowledge of the conditions that 140 million poor and dispossessed people are facing in the U.S. today and how they are organizing and responding to those conditions. 

These stories are the bedrock of our policy work. They are present throughout the Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America report and the Poor People’s Moral Budget: Everybody Has a Right to Live. They have been offered into the Congressional record through special orders, a Hearing on Poverty in front of the House Budget Committee in June 2019, and several other hearings in front of other House Committees. 

On February 26, 2020, Rev. Dr. William Barber II, from Goldsboro, North Carolina, testified in front of House Oversight Committee hearing on voting rights in low income and minority communities. Rev. Barber is the National Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, the President of Repairers of the Breach and architect of the Forward Together Moral Mondays’ Movement out of North Carolina.

North Carolina has been one of the centers of controversy around voter suppression in recent years. In 2016, a federal appeals panel struck down the state’s law restricting early voting and ID requirements, among other changes to voter procedures and policies. The panel called it “the most restrictive voting law North Carolina has seen since the era of Jim Crow.” Since 2010, at least 25 states have passed restrictive legislation that makes it harder for citizens to register or vote.

Read below for Rev. Barber’s statement to the House Oversight Committee and watch the video here. His written testimony is also available here.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II: I want to thank you Chairman, Chairwoman, ranking member and all of the congresspersons that are here. I have sent in extensive written words to this committee that have been entered into the record. I want to say that even from recent history and the continuing reality of voter suppression there are some things we must know.

I come from North Carolina, where we have seen the worst attacks [on voting rights] since June 25, 2015. What is it that we now know? We know that when racist gerrymandering plans can be implemented without proper pre-clearance, state legislatures in the South and other places will justify and will draw racist plans that create super majorities that are, as one judge has said, unconstitutionally constituted and disenfranchise Black, brown, native, and poor voters. And we know that after these unconstitutionally constituted state legislatures and congressional delegations are seated, they will [use] voter fraud as a pretext for passing racist voter suppression laws targeted at Black, brown, and poor voters. And we know this experience, especially, in the South where the South represents 170 of the 270 electoral votes to win the presidency. We call this — and the courts have called this — “surgical racism.” 

We call this — and the courts have called this — “surgical racism.”

For instance, in North Carolina after we had won same-day registration, early voting, and registration for 17-year-olds, extremists in the state legislature passed an omnibus voter suppression bill as soon as the Shelby decision came down, stripping the Voting Rights Act of its pre-clearance requirements. One legislature said that, “Now that the headache has been removed, we can begin.” And they started rolling back the voter extensions that voters had used in the previous election cycles. It took us 4 years in courts, over 1000 arrests from the North Carolina NAACP, Moral Mondays/Forward Together [movement], and others to turn back what should have never been passed by the state legislature in the first place because, as a Federal Court and the Supreme Court affirmed, it was surgical and intentional racism …

Since 2013, Senate leader McConnell and Speakers Boehner and Ryan have worked to keep Congress from fixing the Voting Rights Act. Today is 2437 days that Republicans in Congress have refused to fix the Voting Rights Act, and some Democrats have also refused to make this a central issue in politics and push hard enough to expose what is going on. Strom Thurmond filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 for one day, and we called him a racist. The Congress has refused to fix the VRA for 2437 days today.

We don’t know all that Russia did to our elections in 2016, but we know what voter suppression has done. Let me be clear. The politicians and state houses and Congressional delegations who benefit from racist voter suppression share a policy agenda when they get in office. They have worked as a bloc to attack anti-poverty measures, to attack expanding access to healthcare, to vote against living wages. [All these] policies hurt poor white people most since the total number of poor and [low-income] whites is 66 million in raw numbers and 26 million Black people [in the country]… This is the great and ugly irony of racist voter suppression. The very people who use it to obtain power, once they get that power, they exercise it in ways that hurt mostly white people.

Dr. King spoke of this at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. [He said] that every time there is a possibility for poor black and poor whites to come together and vote to transition this society, we see this push back against it….[this] gives us an impoverished democracy…it is nothing more than James Crow [in modern guise].

The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival has identified the following necessary investments in democracy and equal protection under the law which we believe are inextricably interlinked morally and constitutionally:

  • We demand the immediate full restoration and expansion of the VRA with a formula coverage (hear me, Democrats), with a formula coverage that ensures coverage and reinstates pre-clearance at a minimum to the formerly covered states and jurisdictions, and an end to racist gerrymandering and redistricting.
  • We call for early registration of 17-year-olds, automatic registration at the age of 18, early voting in every state, same day registration, the enactment of election day as a holiday, and a verifiable paper record.
  • We demand the right to vote for the formerly and currently incarcerated. We also demand adequate funding for polling places to accommodate the full participation of the electorate.
  • We demand statehood and voting rights and representation for the residents of Washington D.C.
  • We demand the reversal of state laws preempting local governments from passing minimum wage increases, and the removal of emergency financial management positions that are unaccountable to the democratic process.
  • We demand that the First Nation, Native Americans, and Alaskan Native peoples retain their tribal recognitions, not races, to make substantive claims to their sovereignty and have full access to the ballot.
  • We demand a clear and just immigration system that strengthens our democracy through the broad participation of everyone in this country. This includes providing a timely citizenship process that guarantees the right to vote. It also requires protecting immigrants’ abilities to organize for their rights in the workplace and their communities without fear of retribution, detention, or deportation.
  • We demand equality and safety of all persons regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
  • We demand equal treatment and accessible housing, healthcare, public transportation, and adequate income and services for people with disabilities.

We call for a full, televised debate on voting rights. On voting rights. A full televised debate on voting rights.

To suppress the vote is to suggest that other people do not have the same imago Dei, the image of God in you.

And we declare that voter suppression is sin. We do not give voting rights to parakeets, puppies, and pets. We only give it to citizens who are 18 years and older. To suppress the vote is to suggest that you have entered a God Space and you can determine other peoples’ reality and to suppress the vote is to suggest that other people do not have the same imago Dei, the image of God in you. Suppressing the vote is a form of political and theological idolatry and sin, and it has no place in this democracy.

On this Ash Wednesday, I call on those who have fought against the right to vote and who have lied about voter fraud and who have pushed voter suppression and who have smiled, smirking, at it, Repent! Repent! For the Bible says, “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights and make women and children their prey.”

Suppressing the vote is a form of political and theological idolatry and sin, and it has no place in this democracy.