In a fiery speech to the Congressional Black Caucus on Tuesday, Rev. William Barber — the black North Carolina pastor behind the Poor People’s Campaign — compared the likely impeachment acquittal of President Donald Trump to Jim Crow-style “southern justice.” He championed the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, suggesting that this precedent should give hope to Democrats impeaching Trump in an election year.
“The coordinated coverup we are witnessing as senators conspire to facilitate Trump’s obstruction of Congress is deeply troubling to anyone who knows the history of Southern courthouses, where district attorneys openly coordinated with all-white juries and corrupt judges to cover up acts of racial terror,” Barber declared. “With patience and decorum, [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell has brought Southern justice to the United States Senate.”
By “Southern justice,” Barber meant the Jim Crow-style cover-up of Ku Klux Klan racial terrorism.
“What does this Southern justice look like?” he asked. Barber pointed to the June 1964 murders of civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Three civil rights activists who were attempting to register black voters in Mississippi were murdered after getting arrested by police, and the local law enforcement covered up the heinous crimes. Members of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Office, and the Philadelphia Police Department were involved in the murders and cover-up.
Barber went on to claim that black Americans “have fewer voting rights than we did in 1965,” and pushed the comparison between this kind of Jim Crow, KKK-connected terror and the Ukraine incident at the center of Trump’s impeachment.
“If a crime was committed to rig the next election, it was covered up. This was the everyday practice of Southern justice under Jim Crow, and McConnell has brought Southern justice again to the United States Senate,” Barber declared. “We do not have a representative democracy. We have Southern justice covering for minority rule.”
He compared the current political struggle against Trump to the abolitionist and civil rights movements.
Then Barber engaged in some bizarre “word of faith”-style rhetoric. Like prosperity gospel preachers who insist that Christians can make themselves wealthy and happy by “speaking” wealth and health into existence, the preacher urged his fellow Democrats to “stop saying Trump won.”
“What we have seen is not victory but a cover-up,” he insisted. “Votes were suppressed. One hundred thousand negroes in Detroit didn’t vote. … He lost by more than three million votes in the popular vote.”
“In the power of the tongue is life and death… and if you speak defeat… then defeat will be yours,” Barber said, twisting the meaning of Proverbs 18:21.
Barber engaged in many forms of exegetical jiu-jitsu to attack conservative Christians who support Trump. “According to some folks’ definition of socialism, Jesus was a socialist,” he said, seemingly forgetting that Jesus’s commands to serve the poor had to do with individual action rather than government handouts.
The preacher also condemned “a distorted religious narrative in white evangelicalism that says the only thing God is concerned about is prayer in the school, being against gay people, being against a woman’s right to choose, guns, and voting Republican. That is a heresy. Not just a lie, it’s a heresy.”
Yet the heart of his remarks focused on impeachment, and Barber returned to this theme later in the meandering speech.
He referenced the 1867 impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. “He had promised to allow the racist slaveholders an easy re-entry to the union,” Barber noted.
“Andrew Johnson was impeached for illegally removing President Lincoln’s secretary of war — but remember, that was immediately after the Civil War, when the Union troops were still in the South to enforce reconstruction,” the preacher argued. “Johnson was flagrantly obstructing Congress in order to undermine the rights of America’s newest citizens.”
He suggested that Johnson’s impeachment should be a model for Democrats in 2020.
“Now, they weren’t able to remove Johnson for his abuse of power — hear me, those of you who have been working so hard,” Barber said. “They were not able to remove Johnson for his abuse of power… but the radical Republicans who impeached Andrew Johnson in an election year — listen now — used that process to reclaim their authority. He didn’t get found guilty but they used the legitimate impeachment to rally the electorate that fall and a new president was elected, Ulysses Grant.”
Today’s lesson from history w/ @RevDrBarber: an impeachment that stands for what is right can build power for change, even when it doesn’t remove the president who abused power. #CBC2020Summit pic.twitter.com/nu74QJvUz0
— Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (@wilsonhartgrove) February 4, 2020
“Trump and McConnell and extremists who have hijacked Lincoln’s Republican Party and turned it into Strom Thurmond’s dream are really showing us the white man’s fear,” he argued. “Trump is the latest patron saint of this fear.” Other “patron saints” included Democrat Andrew Johnson, Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush, Barber claimed.
This disgusting rhetoric played on the false narrative that Trump is a white nationalist, either connected to a hateful modern incarnation of the KKK or in league with it. In reality, Trump has celebrated the record-low black unemployment, hosted black pastors at the White House, celebrated Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and championed criminal justice reform. America’s first black billionaire gave him an “A+” on the economy and black voters in swing states may win Trump his re-election.
The Ukraine matter at the center of impeachment has nothing to do with race, and Democrats have severely undermined their case for impeachment by making key strategic errors such as rushing and then slowing the process. In fact, constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley has warned that House Democrats were themselves engaging in “abuse of power” by impeaching Trump for turning to the courts in matters of executive privilege.
As for Andrew Johnson, Barber championed an even shakier case. While Johnson clearly broke a law passed by Congress — the Tenure of Office Act — the Supreme Court would later overturn that law as unconstitutional.
Trump and Johnson are fundamentally different. Johnson never won an election — Lincoln chose the Democratic vice president in a unity ticket for 1864. Andrew Johnson did not even win the Democratic Party nomination in 1868, partially due to impeachment but also due to his role as Lincoln’s vice president. A “War Democrat,” Johnson lost the Democratic nomination to Horatio Seymour, a “Peace Democrat” who supported peace with the Confederacy during the Civil War.
A president has never faced a general election after surviving an impeachment, but the impeachment of Donald Trump has been extremely partisan and it may actually help his re-election chances.
Rhetoric like Barber’s may rile up the Democratic base, but it should cause Americans to scratch their heads. Can a party that sees the specter of the KKK behind Trump’s acquittal really be trusted to govern?
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.