The Shiloh Baptist Church in D.C. hosted its 27th annual Martin Luther King Memorial Prayer Breakfast on Saturday, the morning after Congress allowed the federal government to shut down, and Rev. William Barber II used the event to call for a new campaign against what he said is President Trump’s attempt to roll back decades of civil rights gains.
Rev. Wallace Charles Smith, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, welcomed Barber to the congregation that was packed with federal workers, former White House appointees and veterans of civil rights battles that many thought were won in the 1960s.
“This demonstrates that the church is fighting on and we will not give up,” Smith said. “Even though the government is shut down, the church is still open and will be.”
Rev. Thomas L. Bowen, minister of congregational life at Shiloh and director of religious affairs for Mayor Muriel Bowser, said while the church has been hosting the event for 26 years, this one is significant.
“There has never been a time like this and the stakes are raised,” Bowen said during the event. “We are picking up where Dr. King left off. The dream has to be one that uplifts everyone and we have much more work to do.”
Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said that during Black History Month he will lead a national effort in which people will protest in various sites across the country next month to challenge the policies of the Trump administration.
“We have to organize 2,500 people here, a thousand in the other states, we have to do this simultaneous action,” Barber said. “But it is not just about civil disobedience, we are righting an agenda calling it the souls of poor folks. Fifty years after the poor people’s campaign, it is about motor mobilization. … We are not commemorating the Poor People’s Campaign, we are reigniting it.”
During his speech Barber reminded those gathered of how Martin Luther King was very unpopular after he spoke out against the war Vietnam War on April 4, 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City.
“He was killed one year to date after that sermon,” he said. “[FBI Director] J. Edgar Hoover labeled him as the number one enemy of America and there were others in black leadership who challenged him.”
Barber’s speech came the morning after Democrats and Republicans in Congress blamed each other for the shutdown of the government because they couldn’t reach a consensus on what they planned to do in regards the Children’s Health Initiative Program (CHIP), the Dreamers Act and other programs championed by former President Obama.
“We need to remember that the real Martin Luther King found himself having to take on a society that had a neurotic sickness and a septic commitment to racism, poverty and war that was literally destroying the soul of this nation and ripping apart its moral promises,” he said. “When Dr. King rendered this diagnosis and committed to raise a poor people’s campaign for a moral revolution of values with those who had nothing to lose … He was declared even more an enemy of the state and a threat to the powers that be.”
In the same way King became unpopular, ministers today have to be willing to become unpopular, Barber said.