It’s not often the speaker at an official campus forum at Brigham Young University is someone who has been arrested at least three times in the past five months.
The Rev. Dr. William Barber II is having quite a year, beginning with his sermon at President Joe Biden’s inaugural prayer service in January to speaking at the Vatican in October to creating national news two weeks ago at the trial over Ahmaud Arbery’s murder. The time in between has been peppered with marches, demonstrations and those arrests, taking him from Texas to Arizona and Washington, D.C.
On Tuesday it brought him to the stage in the middle of BYU’s Marriott Center, where he called himself a country preacher who “stopped by” the university to say America needs to follow God and to ask students to become moral defibrillators to shock the nation into action to help the poor.
At the end of his speech, he tossed aside the binder holding his talk and, as it spun and flopped to the floor, he leaned on his cane, threw back his shoulders and shouted for a moral revolution in America.
“Let’s put all our energy together,” he began his conclusion, building toward the crescendo. “Let’s have a moral march on Washington. Let’s believe in the beloved community. Let’s refuse to give up on this democracy. Do I feel a pulse in here? Is there any energy in here? Let’s get together. I feel the power of the Holy Ghost, and I know that when we get together to do love and do justice, what a day.
“What a day! What a day! What a day!” he shouted. “What a day of justice. What a day of reconstruction. What a day of revival. What a day of renewal when we get together. What a day! What a day! What a day!”
Most of the 1,824 BYU students, faculty and staff who attended, according to an estimate by Marriott Center officials, responded with a robust standing ovation.
The Rev. Dr. Barber suffers from the chronic pain of an arthritic condition called ankylosing spondylitis. He appeared exhausted as he took a step away from the podium and slumped backward onto a full-backed stool.
“I’m tired,” he admitted to the Deseret News afterward. “Most of all I’m emotionally tired after the death of my father-in-law. I’m giving his eulogy on Thursday.”
The pastor of a North Carolina church, the Rev. Dr. Barber is the co-chairman of the Poor People’s Campaign, an alliance of poor people crossing all racial lines that is modeled after Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1968 Poor People’s March. King had been turning his focus toward poverty and reducing militarism before his assassination later that year. King’s call for a beloved community is the theme of BYU’s forum addresses this year, which began with Martin Luther King III’s visit in September.
The lecture series has lit a fire in some BYU students.
“I loved the energy he brought today,” said Elizabeth Currit, 22, a junior in environmental science from San Marcos, Texas. “I love this whole year’s theme of the forums, the beloved community. It feels like a turning point for BYU. It feels like we’re becoming more unified and it’s helping us embrace diversity and become more inclusive. These forums are showing us tangible ways to do that.”
For example, Currit said she would like to join the march on Washington, which is scheduled for June 18, 2022, the Rev. Dr. Barber said during a question-and-answer session.
The Poor People’s Campaign is planning to arrange buses to bring people from Utah and states all over the country to Washington, D.C.
“I can’t find a time in history where there was a major transformation where people didn’t come together first,” the Rev. Dr. Barber said in response to a question. He mentioned a May 1857 gathering that provided impetus to the abolition movement in the United States.
The Rev. Dr. Barber used the moral defibrillator imagery at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, though he rejects the labels of liberal or conservative as too puny to handle America’s poverty problem and absent from the documents of America’s founding.
“When I read our Constitution of the United States,” he said, “and I look at the call to establish justice as the first principle, and I look at the glaring realities of systemic racism and poverty, and ecological devastation, and the underfunding of education, and the denial of health care, and the overfunding of the war economy and the false and distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism coupled with notions of white supremacy, it is clear to me that we face a crisis of possibility, a crisis of civilization and a crisis of democracy.”
The Rev. Dr. Barber repeated his long-held position that America needs a third reconstruction, the first being the period after the Civil War and the second coming during the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“We need something Latter-day Saints know a lot about: national repentance,” he said. “We need a third reconstruction. There’s no time to waste. There’s no time to wait. We’ve got to stop this national move toward becoming a civil oligarchy moving to an autocracy. It’s the battle of our time.”
He urged BYU students to follow Jesus Christ’s admonition to work from the bottom up — “unto the least of these” — and focus on ending poverty.
“You aren’t the leaders of tomorrow,” he said. “You must be part of the moral voice today.”
A 2018 New Yorker profile described the large pastor as cutting an ursine profile, in part because his condition causes him to lean forward when he speaks. He wore a three-piece black suit, a magenta shirt with a clerical collar and gold cross hanging on a chain around his neck. He used a white towel to wipe sweat from his face and brow.
His sermon at the Biden’s inaugural prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., relied on Isaiah 58, where he said in prayer, “What a day it will be when our children’s children call us what you have called us to be: repairers of the breach.”
He said the march next June is designed to put faces on the 140 million people living in poverty in the United States.
“It’s time, y’all,” he said. “It’s time to make ending poverty a top legislative priority. It’s time for poor and low-wealth people who make up one-third of the electorate to say somebody has been hurting our people for too long, and we won’t be silent anymore. It’s time to expand democratic participation.”
He said it is being set up so “the rejected of every race, along with people of faith and people have deep moral concern and advocates and even the wealthy with a conscience, can help save the heart and soul of this nation.”
Barber was arrested at the U.S. Capitol on June 23 and again on Aug. 3 during nonviolent demonstrations by the Poor People’s Campaign for a $15 minimum wage and the For the People Act, a voting rights bill. He also was arrested in July during a sit-in outside the office of Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., during a sit-in over similar issues.
He helped lead a four-day march in Texas in July to protest voter suppression legislation.
Two weeks ago, he was the center of national news after he accepted the request of Ahmaud Arbery’s parents to travel to Georgia to sit with them during the trial for the men who shot to death their unarmed son. A defense attorney asked the judge to ban Black pastors from the courtroom, a request the judge denied and labeled “reprehensible” and one the Rev. Dr. Barber wrote about for The Washington Post.
“I’m telling you change can come,” he told the BYU audience. “So I got a question as I go to my seat: Is there any moral power in this room? Is there a heart in this house called Brigham Young? It seemed like I feel a pulse out there. Is there a pulse here? What if we all get together? What if we all get together, and we shock this nation until the poor are lifted, and the workers are paid, and the sick are insured, and voting is guaranteed, and unmerciful homelessness is ended, and war is not pushed and promulgated and promoted, and wrongful police killings are stopped ...? What if we get together until the beloved community is cultivated, and children are protected, and civil rights and labor rights and human rights are never neglected? I got a suggestion: Let’s get together.”
The Rev. Dr. Barber’s address can be seen on BYUtv.