The Rev. William Barber II's Southern Mission
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The South’s political shift in the last century changed the face of American politics. Is it due for another in this one?
By Emily Cadei
Those in attendance were women, mostly, young and old and black and white, and they were in a boisterous mood. The ladies responded to speaker after speaker with loud affirmations. Mmm-hmmm! they said, and Say it! they encouraged. Not until one of the few men in attendance, broad-shouldered but leaning on a cane, limped toward the podium did the room grow quiet.
The Rev. William Barber II began slowly. His low, rumbling baritone purred along through each phrase until it found a word to pounce on, for emphasis. “Loretta Lynch” — pause — “should be confirmed as the next U.S. attorney general simply because” — pause — “she is the right person.” “Yes!” several women burst out in unison.
The sermon had begun, except that this wasn’t church. It was an NAACP news conference, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The Rev. Barber’s preaching-cum-political oratory wasn’t the only throwback to the civil rights era, either: The themes of morality and justice infuse his entire approach to politics and have built the foundation for the grass-roots movement he’s led against conservative gains in his home state of North Carolina. The movement could offer a model for progressives looking to reclaim the mantle of “American values,” dominated so long by Republicans. Or else? It might just be the next liberal protest movement to peter out without much tangible change to show for it (see, e.g., Occupy Wall Street).
Barber, 51, comes from a long line of preachers — a centuries-old line, in fact. His father, also the Rev. William Barber, and mother were civil rights leaders in North Carolina. Barber’s led the North Carolina NAACP since 2005. Yet it wasn’t until 2013, after Republicans took over all the levers of state government, that Barber burst onto the political scene. Republicans had already rolled back a litany of progressive-backed laws, but the “straw that burst the camel’s back,” Barber says, was the introduction of a voter ID law that rolled back early voting and same-day registration. In response, he and about 50 others marched into the legislative building “praying and singing.” Barber and 16 others were arrested for trespassing, making the local news headlines.
Thus began what’s now known as Moral Monday. Each ensuing Monday attracted more and more liberal activists, and by now, thousands have attended weekly rallies during legislative sessions, and hundreds have been arrested. “We didn’t have a plan for a continuation for Moral Mondays,” says Barber. “It just grew.”
One of the movement’s uncommon features is that it’s rallied a broad mix of religious and secular groups around a moral message — casting discrimination and economic inequality as matters of right and wrong. The approach seems to resonate far more widely than partisan point-scoring or any particular law. “I think progressives make a very big mistake when we give away the moral argument,” Barber says.
Copycat Moral Monday movements have sprung up in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere.
Political advocacy and morality have always been intertwined from him. The child of two professionals and activists, Barber was born two days after the 1963 March on Washington, causing his father to miss the historic event. When he was in grade school, Barber’s parents moved him from his integrated life in Indiana down to his father’s home state of North Carolina, where Barber Sr. had been asked to teach at an all-black school and fight for the state’s integration. Throughout his upbringing, “I was just taught that there was no separation between being a Christian and being concerned about justice,” he says.
Across the board, that call to justice galvanized liberals in North Carolina and beyond — copycat Moral Monday movements have sprung up in Florida, Georgia and elsewhere. But while the movement has earned a good share of press — “you couldn’t buy that kind of publicity,” says Raleigh-based Democratic strategist Scott Falmlen — questions remain about its effectiveness. Republicans didn’t just retain state power in the 2014 race, they also picked up a U.S. Senate seat. They’ve plowed forward with tax and benefits cuts, and stricter voting rules, including the ID requirement that first got Barber ginned up. Moral Monday has “gotten less media coverage over time because it’s the norm now,” says one North Carolina Republican aide, who argues it hasn’t been all that effective in shaping legislation.
Supporters, however, take the long view. They insist that the impact can’t be measured by one election or legislative session, even while pointing to nascent signs of political change. The Rev. Dr. Earl Johnson, pastor of Raleigh’s Martin Street Baptist Church, credits Barber and Moral Mondays with helping Democrats dominate the recent race for local county commissioner seats. And Falmlen says they’re no doubt part of the reason for the state legislature’s sinking approval ratings. Barber also notes their fights in the courts, including the NAACP’s lawsuit against the voting law, which is set to go to trial in a U.S. district court in July.
Meanwhile, he’s not slowing down. He and members of the Moral Mondays movement are weighing in on federal issues, such as their D.C. advocacy for North Carolina native Loretta Lynch’s confirmation as attorney general. Back home, Barber and fellow activists are planning not just more protests in Raleigh, but also events in lawmakers’ districts. “We’re going to continue to build power and ultimately we’re going to transform the state,” Barber promises. It will be evidence, he says, that “you can be progressive in the South. There’s a new South rising.”