The Arkansas Times spoke with the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and newly awarded MacArthur Genius grant fellow, ahead of the Poor People’s Campaign hearing in Little Rock that will take place at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 15, at the Rufus K. Young Christian Church at 100 Main St. Clarke Tucker, Josh Mahoney, Sen. Joyce Elliott and Rep. Vivian Flowers will also be in attendance.


Congratulations on receiving the MacArthur Genius grant. You were arrested amid an act of civil disobedience when you heard about the award. Will you be using your grant money to spread your street-level activism across the country?

Well, that’s the purpose of the grant, it is to empower the person who receives it to continue the work they’ve been doing. … When they give it, they’re clear that the only thing they want you to do is they give the grant on your ability to expand the work. So that’s actually a part of the reason why the gift was given. It’s not only given based on your past laurels, it’s given based on awarding to you on the potential to continue to work you’ve been doing to benefit society.

[When] I got arrested, I was in police custody in Chicago, having gotten arrested in front of McDonald’s standing with fast food workers and janitors and health care workers because 64 million people in this country make less than a living wage. There’s not one county in the United States today where people making minimum wage can afford a basic two-bedroom apartment. So, I was standing with [them] and others because the Poor People’s Campaign has been very clear that we can no longer have a conversation that only talks about the middle class. We have to deal with more areas: systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation and the war economy. And we cannot continue to have a society where the 400 top taxpayers make an average of $97,000 an hour and lock people up who simply want $15 and a union. CEOs are making 300 times — some are making 400 times — more than their workers, and yet they refuse to pay people a living wage.

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A lot of times, politicians will claim that they care about working people … but they ending up cutting taxes for the wealthy and putting more of a burden on working people. And they don’t want to ever talk about living wages. We could do this.

Here in Arkansas, we have a ballot initiative to raise the state minimum wage to $11 an hour. Do you believe, in a state like Arkansas, that this is the right way to help the poor, or could this potentially be a band-aid?

Well, it’s one of the ways. Part of the problem is we can’t say we’re going it to pay $11 an hour and then take 5 or 6 years to do that. That’s not what’s needed. What is needed is to do it, that’s what we’re saying. Let me give you some facts:

States like North Carolina and Arkansas are so-called red states, or Republican. But here’s the thing I want to point out: It’s all connected. When you look at systemic racism and voter suppression, Arkansas has had two voter ID measures in 2017. Now, when you look at states that have passed voter suppression laws, you find the same politicians that push voter ID and voter suppression are the same politicians that block living wages and refuse to expand Medicaid. What’s interesting about that is many of those politicians get elected through racialized voter suppression and racialized gerrymandering, but they end up passing policies that hurt mostly white people.

Now you say, how do you know that? Well, there are 140 million poor and low wealth citizens in this country. The majority of them are white women and children. One of the reasons we’re coming to Arkansas is because almost 50 percent of the people in your state are poor or low income. In Arkansas, 863,000 people are poor and low wealth. … You have a bunch of politicians that are for prayer in school, they’re against gay people, they’re for tax cuts, they’re for guns, but that doesn’t help poor people. … And you have politicians in Arkansas that don’t even talk about the poor. We also know that in Arkansas, a person making a minimum wage would have to work 65 hours a week to afford a two-bedroom apartment. And 617,0000* workers in Arkansas make less than $15 an hour. That’s 54 percent of all Arkansans. And $11 is not a living wage.

… What we’re saying in the PPC is there are 5 interlocking injustices. No. 1 systemic racism as seen through voter suppression, racialized incarceration, and attacks on the immigrant community. No. 2, systemic poverty. No. 3, ecological devastation and health care. No. 4, the war economy, and No. 5, what we call the false moral narrative of so-called Christians and religious nationalism that tries to suggest that the only thing Christians or religious people should be concerned about is being against gay people and abortion, but they have nothing to say about a living wage and healthcare.

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What can people expect from Monday’s PPC hearing?

What we’re doing is connecting all of these things through the Poor People’s Campaign: A national call for moral revival. We need a new narrative. And Arkansas is one of those states where black poor people, white poor people, brown poor people, Asian poor people, native poor people, all need to come together with religious leaders and advocates say that we, together, are going to challenge these interlocking injustices.

… At the hearings, we do three things: No. 1, we introduce people to The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America 50 Years After the Poor People’s Campaign. It was done by some of the best economists and statisticians in the country at the National [Graduate] Institute for Policy Studies, and it does an audit of every one of these areas. No. 2, we have people who are impacted. Come Monday night, there’ll be somebody there [who] makes less than a living wage. There’ll be somebody there who doesn’t have health care. Not somebody talking for them, but somebody talking for themselves. They will share their stories, and then after they share their stories, we together will say what the demands of the campaign are, and we will call people to register for the movement who also vote.

The last thing that’s different is the politicians can’t talk. Oftentimes, when they come to talk, they try to say they’ve done all these things that they haven’t done. So they have to come and listen to the impact of people, and listen to the moral leaders and advocates, who are saying, listen.

We are going to register for this movement, we’re going to vote, we’re going to hold people accountable, and we’re going to say, if you want our vote, you’re going to have to hear our voice and vote our backs.

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that 17,000 workers in Arkansas make less than $15 an hour.