Keynote speech commemorates MLK, encourages nonpartisan politics

The reverend recalled some of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous words as he urged for King’s message of unification


The Rev. William J. Barber II delivered the keynote address that marked the culmination of the university’s events to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Photo by Arthur Rodrigues, ‘22.

Arthur Rodrigues

Washington and Lee students and members of the Lexington community came together on Jan. 2 in the culmination of a series of events honoring the life and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

The Rev. William J. Barber II delivered the keynote address in the Lenfest Center.

“Nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now,” Barber said.

Barber echoed some of King’s most famous words to summarize the fight for equality promoted by his own organization, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

Barber is co-chair of the campaign, which works to dismantle what he calls the “five great evils of our society.” The Poor People’s Campaign challenges “the evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality,” according to its website.   

Barber spoke in his address of the importance of continuing to promote and fight for positive social change, citing the large percentage of the American population living in poverty as a sign that MLK’s work was far from over.

“I do not believe in celebrating prophets,” Barber said. “I believe in joining them.”

Thirty-five percent of Caucasians in America are poor, he said, along with 41 percent of the total elderly population and 39 million American children. Barber said these statistics constitute an existential threat to American democracy.

“We have fewer voting rights today than we had in the 1960s,” he said.

Barber mentioned the controversial changes to the Voting Rights Act in 2013, when the Supreme Court overturned a provision of the act that required more oversight of jurisdictions with a history of discrimination. Barber reminded the audience that 26 states had passed voter suppression laws since then.

He emphasized a message of unity similar to King’s, encouraging nonpartisan politics focused on the betterment of the world for all people instead of a particular group. Barber criticized the attempts of elites to divide the working class through the implementation of systemic racism.

“The racist Southern aristocracy took the world and gave the white poor man Jim Crow,” he said. “[It] became the last outpost of psychological oblivion.”

Barber spoke of the importance of remembering history, mentioning Washington and Lee’s troubled past in relation to race and its role in enabling the division of the South. He said it was a “miracle” that such a diverse crowd was present for his speech, given that Washington and Lee only began accepting African-American students in the 1960s, and prior to that had a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan founded on campus.

“The power of the ideals that unite us were stronger than the forces of those attempting to divide us,” he said.

Barber encouraged the audience to act and join the movement toward what he considered a truly free and equal society. He emphasized the importance of reviving fusion coalitions of African-American and white voters to counteract a growing sentiment of polarization in politics.

“Extremists can’t win against a fusion block of voters,” he said.

Barber stressed the importance of unifying the working class to combat what he considers a growing rift in the American population. He denounced the actions of the political establishment in using a “false Christianity” to justify their policies in government.

“We have far too many politicians who are too eager to put their hand on the Bible, but don’t know what it says,” he said.

Despite criticizing President Donald Trump and people loyal to the president, Barber distanced himself from partisan politics. Barber said he was part of the “moral center” and encouraged the nation to return to it as well, rather than existing in a defined space in the political spectrum.

Barber closed his speech by calling members of the audience to the stage in a display of unison. People came together and held hands as he delivered his closing remarks..

“I know the power of coming together,” he said. “They don’t want to see us together.”

Barber reminded the audience that justice and peace, despite “suffering a few beatings,” had never lost.

“The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice,” he said, again quoting King, “and nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now.”