By Jan Worth-Nelson
Calling for “a season of civil disobedience,” North Carolina social justice icon and preacher the Rev. Dr. William Barber roused an emotional Flint crowd Monday night, saying the city’s water crisis is another in a centuries-long trail of American “poison.”
He called for a surge of righteous indignation from the capacity crowd–diverse by black, white and brown and Christian, Jew and Muslim at Grace Emmanuel Baptist Church.
The theme of his talk was “Prophetic Cure for Poisoned Water,” in which he declared Flint “The Modern-day Selma of the 21st Century” — a symbol of a larger contamination of environmental, social, racial and moral corruption.
“We walked across the river in Selma,” he said, referring to the famous civil rights crossing of the Edmund Pettus bridge as part of the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965 — “and now we got to clean up the river in Flint.”
The event, headlined as “It’s Time We All STAND UP for Racial Injustice and a Moral Agenda,” was co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union and Michigan Faith in Action, a nonprofit ecumenical consortium of religious leaders and congregations in the state.
Drawing on a Biblical account of Jericho, an ancient city whose water was poisoned, Barber described the power of the “young millennial” prophet Elisha, who called out the corruption behind the poison in his time. He was, Barber recounted, a bold young voice who said “bring me a new jar” for the water of his troubled city and applied a cleansing dose of salt — and truth.
Barber offered the concept of SALT as an acronym for “Somebody Always Lifting Truth” and exhorted the crowd to engage in civil disobedience. Touting the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau, he recounted how when Ralph Waldo Emerson visited him in jail, Emerson said, “Why are you in jail?” and Thoreau replied, “Why aren’t YOU?”
“We can’t fix this with the same old vessels, and the same old people. We need some new vessels. You are the new vessels. We can’t keep doing what we’ve always been doing — our children have been poisoned,” he said.
Quoting filmmaker and Flint home boy Michael Moore that Flint’s water poisoning — and its consequences — represented “a racial killing” Barber noted that “race and class and justice go side by side” in America.”
“What has happened in Flint is not unfamiliar,” in America, he said. ” It’s American. It is not new — it is too much like America to be called anything else.” And one of the biggest tragedies, he said, was “THEY KNEW” — referring to state officials — that the water was poison.
“They knew,” he added, “that this was a city where 41 per cent live in poverty, where 60 per cent are African-American. They knew.”
“They thought you were too poor and too black and too white to fight back,” he said. But in calling the assembled to be “cleansers,” he cautioned, “This will not just be fixed with a political movement — you need a new moral movement right here in Flint.”
“Water has been poisoned by greed, and corrupt politics and meanness and the desire for oppression,” he said. “When poor communities are treated like things, and corporations are treated like people, and when you can buy lead-free gas but you can’t guarantee lead-free water, we need truth,” he declared. “You’re not going to poison our children and get away with it.”
“Truth, what truth? We’re going to keep investigating until somebody’s hind parts is in jail,” he promised.
“No matter how much money or power you have, you’re not going to wage war on the poor without a fight back,” he said. “Somebody always lifting truth. The coverup will be uncovered. Truth, Mr. Trump — murder is not just shooting somebody with the guns that you keep giving the people, but murder is a governor in your party signing on a policy to poison the water and the lives of the community.”
“If they [the perpetrators of poison] are cynical enough, we ought to be smart enough to come together. Somebody has to point out the poison.
“You may have poisoned our water,” he said, “but you have not poisoned our minds. You have not poisoned our will to fight..”
Citing the struggles of the past in the lives of Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglass and others, he said, “They aren’t coming back, but we are their children.”
Pointing out historical precedents of “poison” from slavery to the Emmett Till murder to the Dredd Scott decision to the Tuskegee experiments to the dumping of PCBs into the ditches of North Carolina, to the assassinations of “Malcolm, Medger, and MLK,” he said the poisoning of America extends into the present.
“It is in our time,” he said. “The past election was poison — pure poison — and Trump is a result of the mixture of the poison.
“Steve Bannon–poison. Jeff Sessions — poison,” he shouted. “And it’s the system that is poison.”
He called out citizens for failing to vote, asserting, “if you’re not voting against the politicians that are making the crime, that makes you an accessory to the crime.”
“No lie will live forever,” he told the increasingly vocal crowd, as he called up first the “young salt” — the younger generation of activists — and then the “old salt” — “people who know Joan Baez,” he said — from the audience to connect and pledge to work together. The front of the sanctuary filled up as young and old faced each other, smiling and reaching out to hold hands.
“The truth is, there is some living water. If you keep hollering you can break through this madness,” he concluded.
Barber is pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he founded the “Forward Together Moral Movement.” It drew national attention with its Moral Monday protests at the North Carolina General Assembly in 2013, weekly actions which drew tens of thousands of North Carolinians and other witnesses to the state legislature. According to one of his biographies, during those actions of civil disobedience, more than a thousand peaceful protesters were arrested, handcuffed and jailed. In addition, Barber is chair of the Political Action Committee of the national NAACP board.
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.