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North Carolina pastor brings his message of positive change to Hofstra

Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II speaks backstage

Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II speaks backstage at the John Cranford Adams Playhouse at Hofstra University. Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

A North Carolina pastor on a nationwide effort to rekindle the anti-poverty and racial justice message forged by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. urged a Hofstra University crowd Tuesday night to reject efforts to divide Americans by ethnicity and class and instead focus on pursuing positive change.

The Rev. William Barber II, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, told an audience of about 300 inside the university's John Cranford Adams Playhouse that politics of racial division had sundered progressive movements since the Civil War. Focusing anger on Republican President Donald Trump is just a distraction from pursuing positive change, Barber said. 

“You don’t need to vote against Trump, you need to vote for better tomorrows,” Barber said in his speech at Hofstra's commemoration of the International Day of Non-Violence. “We need a moral movement … to save the heart and soul of America itself. 

Barber was the featured speaker at the event. The annual commemoration, timed to approximate the Oct. 2 anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi, was organized by several Hofstra organizations that encourage student involvement in social issues. Last year’s event featured activists Fred Brewington, a Hempstead-based civil rights attorney, and the Rev. Mark Lukens, pastor of Bethany Congregational Church in East Rockaway, and chairman of the Interfaith Alliance of Long Island.

Barber’s challenge of a Republican-drawn redistricting map during regular “Moral Mondays” protests at the North Carolina statehouse beginning in 2013 helped push racial gerrymandering into the nation’s consciousness. Last year, the Supreme Court ordered South Carolina to redraw the map, saying it intentionally advantaged white voters. 

“We’ve got to hold up the banner until every person has health care, we’ve got to hold it up until every child is lifted in love, we’ve got to hold it up until every job is a living-wage job, until every person in poverty has guaranteed subsistence,” Barber told a Memphis crowd in April.

The North Carolina minister's social advocacy is particularly relevant to Long Islanders, said Hofstra economics professor Martin Melkonian, because of the region's rising income inequality, stagnant wages, and barriers to social mobility such as expensive college tuition.

“With so much of America’s wealth going to the top 10 percent, and the top 1 percent, we are facing a severe crisis for the bottom half of the population,” Melkonian said. “So I thought he would be a relevant speaker to bring inspiration and hope to average people that maybe something could be done.”

Barber’s Hofstra speech came two months after President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers in July declared the country’s five-decade war on poverty was largely over. The council cited disputed economic models its members said show the percentage of poor Americans has dropped by about 80 percent since 1980.

Earlier, in April, Trump ordered federal agencies to stiffen work requirements for public assistance recipients, saying that would encourage work and reduce dependence on federal handouts.

But many economists and social policy analysts dispute the administration’s reasoning, saying the Trump White House is downplaying poverty’s extent to justify slashing social programs, while offering big tax cuts for upper income Americans.

Locally,  the Long Island Association reported last year that more than 20 percent of single parent Suffolk households live in poverty —  a number equal to the overall poverty rate in nation’s poorest state, Mississippi.

Sarah Dowd, 19, a junior who listened along with a diverse group of friends, said she was encouraged by Barber's call for social activism.

"We don't have a lot of speakers come to campus who want what I want, which is an end to racism, an end to homophobia, to Islamophobia," Dowd said. "This is motivating, especially for marginalized groups who want to get out and change what is happening."

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