When the Rev. Dr. William Barber II took the podium at the UFT’s Spring Education Conference to accept the union’s highest honor, the John Dewey Award, the packed ballroom at the New York Hilton fell silent in anticipation of Barber’s storied oratorical skills. By the time he was finished speaking, the 1,700 attendees had leapt to their feet, waving napkins in the air and shouting, moved by the power and force of the reverend’s words.
“The only way we as a nation cannot educate every child is to argue that some don’t matter like others matter and some children are inherently inferior because of their race, their zip code and their class,” Barber said. “We must fight for the humanity of all children.”
Barber cast his fight as a fight for the moral revival of the country. “Public education and access to a high-quality, well-funded, diverse public education and access to college, to community college and development of the soul and the brain is a moral issue,” he said.
The John Dewey Award for Excellence in Education is reserved for distinguished educators and education advocates. Past honorees include Eleanor Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.
“We do not give out a Dewey Award every year,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said. “I cannot think of a better time to bestow this award on Rev. Barber.”
Barber has led regular Moral Monday protests in his home state of North Carolina since 2013, uniting clergy with people from diverse racial and social backgrounds to make a moral appeal for voting and LGBTQ rights and for vital public needs, including access to health care, criminal-justice reform and quality public education.
“He is giving us a blueprint we can use in every corner of this country,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in his remarks.
Just days before the conference, Barber announced he was stepping down as president of the North Carolina State NAACP to launch a national Poor People’s Campaign. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began the original Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 before he was assassinated, and Barber said it’s time to return to that work.
“We don’t need to have a remembrance of the Poor People’s Campaign and what they tried to do,” he said. “We need to imagine it, re-imagine it, and re-engage it for the 21st century.”
He called for people from different communities and cultures to “come together around an agenda that lifts the poor.”
Barber cautioned against letting the challenges of the present loom too large. “When people say, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this before,’ c’mon,” chided Barber, referencing some of the darker chapters in U.S. history, including slavery and Jim Crow.
The battles of the past offer lessons for the present, Barber counseled. “Because sometimes we’re not seeing anything new, but something old in a new package,” he said.
When the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation unconstitutional in its Brown v. Board of Education ruling 63 years ago, Barber pointed out, an MIT-trained engineer called for the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren.
“His name was Freddy Koch, the daddy of Charles and David Koch,” he said. “So, now you understand that when Charles and David Koch fight against public education today, they are trying to fulfill the nightmare of their father, but we must fulfill the dream of Dr. King.”