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"We're going to make the legislators hear us at Moral Mondays, and then we're going to follow them back home."

The Rev. William Barber leads a new era of progressive politics in North Carolina 

The Rev. William Barber: "We're going to make the legislators hear us at Moral Mondays, and then we're going to follow them back home."

Photo by Justin Cook

The Rev. William Barber: "We're going to make the legislators hear us at Moral Mondays, and then we're going to follow them back home."

The Rev. William Barber had been preparing for this day his entire life.

At the 10th Moral Monday demonstration, hundreds of people cram inside the rotunda of the Legislative Building, corralled on both sides by two sets of golden doors that lead to the House and Senate chambers.

"You have five minutes to disperse or you will be arrested," announces the chief of police through his bullhorn.

Loud "boo"s erupt from the second-floor balcony, where crowds had been peacefully singing "This Little Light of Mine." Protesters begin to chant, "Our house ... our house ... our house."

Barber, president of the N.C. NAACP since 2006, is accustomed to controlling the tone of such assemblies with his oratorical skills. He tries to redirect the crowd by leading them in another spiritual, but no one can hear him. Barber steps onto the edge of the white marble fountain. Two people from his entourage steady him as he lurches forward.

"No, no, no, no, no," he shouts, almost completely inaudible. "We don't have any business booing the police. Our focus has got to be on McCrory, Tillis and Berger," he says, beginning to regain the crowd's attention. "And ... and ... and ... Our focus is on the issues."

Barber's issues are many: unemployment, health care, environment, education, voting rights, women's rights, equality. When Republican supermajorities in both the N.C. House and Senate began unveiling an array of conservative reforms last January, the NAACP mobilized its 151 coalition partners. Thousands have protested at the 12 Moral Mondays this spring, and nearly 1,000 have been arrested.

Each Monday, Barber, the leader of this progressive coalition, hobbles his mammoth frame onto the stage using a cane. He is partially crippled by a rare form of arthritis, which limits his mobility.

But when he speaks into the microphone, Barber is a master in the style of black Southern preaching that hearkens back to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s.

"Every piece of legislation should pass this test," he says, invoking his central theme for the crowd: "How does it benefit the good of the whole?" Barber's critique is also biblical, often using the verse "Whatever you did unto the least of these, you did unto me."

Some critics see him as an opportunist, capitalizing on a backlash against North Carolina's flood of conservative policies. Yet Barber says he wants to bury the old style of Dixiecratic rule by conservative Southern Democrats in favor of "fusion" politics that galvanize people across racial lines, through shared political interests.

"Do not forget," Barber tells the crowd, "this is a movement, not a moment."

Barber says he never had "a moment" of being called to the civil rights struggle. Instead, he likes to say, he was "involuntarily drafted."

Barber was born on Aug. 30, 1963, two days after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington. His parents wanted to participate in the integration of the South, so they moved the family from Indiana to Washington County, N.C.—an extremely poor and rural area in the eastern part of the state.

"My parents both had college degrees, and in the 1950s and '60s that was pretty good for African-Americans at that time," Barber says. "They had the opportunity to stay in Indiana and basically move on up in their jobs. But they made a decision to take their only child at that time, come back here to my father's hometown and enter me into segregated kindergarten."

Barber's father was a minister and activist, holding impromptu meetings in the family living room to organize voter drives. And similar to many Americans' recollections of the JFK assassination, Barber remembers King's murder. The image haunted him for years.

"I remember my mother just screaming in the house and seeing her looking at this black and white TV sitting up on the refrigerator," says Barber, who was 5 at the time. "Now I know what that was, was when Dr. King was shot. My mother was bent over and my daddy came in crying. It was so dramatic."

When King died, he wasn't focusing on the color line—the major feat he is remembered for in history classes today. He was involved in labor issues, a garbage workers' strike in Memphis, Tenn.

"We may not have come over on the same ship, but we're in the same boat now," Barber often paraphrases King. In Barber's view, the banner for economic justice—one that defies racial lines—lies almost exactly where King dropped it.

Like King, Barber's strategy is to "dramatize" disparity by humanizing it.

"I have a face and I have a name. My name is Phillip Diehl and I live in Mocksville," a man announced at a recent rally, as Barber stood behind him on stage.

Diehl, a barrel-chested white man, had recently been laid off and was about to lose his unemployment benefits. "Under the new unemployment law, the maximum benefit is going to be $350 per week," Diehl says. "That's roughly $1,400 a month. Add up your monthly incomes, your gas, your groceries, your car payment, your house payment. It is way over $1,400 a month."

"When they cut health care, that's not a black issue," Barber boomed later. "that's a people issue. When they cut unemployment, that hurts everybody."

After a recent Moral Monday, a young black activist from Greensboro sits at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, a liberal congregation in Raleigh, where supper is waiting for arrestees when they're released from detention.

"What exactly is it we are saying we want moving forward?" the activist asks. "Do we want to raise the minimum wage, or is it education, is it health care?"

"We were talking about this earlier," a political science professor from N.C. Central University chimes in. "Because it's not like the state was as progressive as we wanted it to be before Republicans took control."

Democrats, for instance, slashed public services after the recession in 2008. In Wisconsin, which North Carolina has often been compared to since Moral Mondays began, protesters were demonstrating to preserve collective bargaining rights two years ago. State employees have not had these rights here, even though Democrats were in power for 100 years.

Past leaders of North Carolina's Democratic Party can trace their lineage directly to Democratic senators Sam Ervin and Everett Jordan, who fiercely defended segregation.

The political science professor eventually answers the activist's question: "I think if this movement has any limitation, it's been that—not crystallizing our demands for the future."

Barber likes to say he has 500 years of preaching "just on my daddy's side of the family."

"I grew up under that tutelage of not understanding how to be a Christian without being concerned about justice and the larger community," he says.

But before he had a passion for the pulpit, Barber showed political talent. He attended Plymouth High School in rural Washington County, where students elected a black student body president separately, for fear that no African-American could win an election outright. But in 1980 Barber did just that.

He continued in student government in college, holding various offices at North Carolina Central University. He figured the best way to make his mark would be as a lawyer. The organizer inside him struggled with institutionalized religion.

"I had a little bitterness in my soul, if you will, because what I saw my father attempting to do" was preach in a way "that manifests itself in engagement and action in the larger community," he says. "It caused him a lot of pain."

Many young people in the movement don't come to it through religion. For that reason Barber says he tries "not to talk too much about religion," but he does not shy away from prayer or extolling what he sees as the renegade virtues of Jesus. "We love Jesus, we just have a problem with the church. I can understand that."

Barber's election as president of North Carolina's NAACP was controversial. At the time, the organization was viewed largely as a legal defense fund immersed in a banquet culture. Barber's goal was to re-energize it as a force for grassroots social change.

One of Barber's first steps was to dust off many of the NAACP's standing committees. He brought in well-known civil rights organizers, both black and white, to help him run the organization, including Al McSurely, Irv Joyner, Tim Tyson and Angela Dunston.

The leadership developed a 14-point agenda that includes legalizing unions, raising the minimum wage and providing universal health care. In the first year, 16 organizations signed on to the agenda. Today, 151 groups participate in Moral Mondays.

"Rev. Barber can see things into the future, that other people don't see," says Roger Wilson, a deacon in Barber's Goldsboro church and a longtime NAACP member. "I've been around him for 20 years now, so it took me a while to see it, that he's always got a long-term vision."

The NAACP is responsible for many legal challenges, including one against the most recent congressional redistricting in North Carolina. But under Barber's leadership, it has won major victories, such as helping to unionize a hog production plant and freeing a Wilson man, John McNeill, from prison.

The most epic victory involved a two-year campaign in Wake County to protest a decision by the conservative school board to end a decades-long diversity policy. That battle led to the overthrow of a conservative board majority, which had been advocating for districting along neighborhood lines rather than achieving racial and socioeconomic balance in schools.

However, the NAACP got hammered in its only statewide organizing campaign, against Amendment 1, a referendum that passed by a two-thirds margin last year and enshrined a gay marriage ban into the North Carolina constitution.

"We're always struggling to portray the struggle of LGBTQ families as being wound up with racial justice and immigrant justice issues," says Manju Rajendran, who worked for a gay rights organization at the time. "It felt like maybe having the NAACP take such a principled central stand on the issue helped the public understand that this amendment fight wasn't a white issue but a human rights issue."

Barber blamed the media for failing to grasp what was at stake. "Media people framed the question wrong," he says. "Asking people how they feel about same-sex marriage, that's a private question, between you, your preacher and your god. That's not the question you ask in the public square. The question is not if you like it, but do you believe people have the right to marry?"

But such an indirect messaging approach has often failed, according to research firm Political Research Associates, which also notes that pro-LGBTQ advocates have lost 37 out of 40 statewide campaigns.

"The extreme right in this state made a big mistake in forcing that amendment fight here," says Rajendran. "Because it really just helped galvanize many movements that had been working separately."

"Under Rev. Barber's leadership, we don't stop. We don't go away," says the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, who was elected 2nd Vice President of the N.C. NAACP the same year as Barber was. "When we put our agenda together we knew it meant fighting through victories and losses. The governor and the Legislature have underestimated what's been happening during the past seven years of this movement."

Barber is leaving Goldsboro, where he pastors Greenleaf Christian Church, to officiate a wake in Mount Olive. His son drives us through a half-abandoned downtown; empty factories and buildings line the street. A faded sign adorns a forgotten big box store that has been fenced off at the perimeter.

Barber believes that the poverty and unemployment of places like Goldsboro are driving the new progressive movement, because they don't discriminate. So, he says, "We're going to bring the fight back [here] to all the rural areas and to people's homes. We're going to make the legislators hear us at Moral Mondays, and then we're going to follow them back home."

Barber hopes to make organizers out of the more than 800 people that have been arrested in the demonstrations. "If each of them registers 50 people to vote every two months, that's 80,000 people," says Barber, who plans to run an extended voter registration and education drive when the legislative session ends. The NAACP and Democracy NC have printed leaflets, which grade both Republican and Democratic lawmakers on their voting records.

The real test of Moral Mondays is how progressive politicians respond to Barber's holistic vision of a government that protects "the least of these" and functions "for the good of the whole." Rep. Evelyn Terry, a freshman Democrat from Winston-Salem, acknowledges that previous party leaders did not push the progressive envelope that far.

She says the party needs to expand its vision to reflect the values of the Moral Monday movement. "We have to ensure that we [as lawmakers] are focused on breaking down the barriers of status and class," she says at a recent Monday protest.

"Think about it. You had the March on Washington one day and it changed the consciousness of the nation, because it set the tone," Barber says. "It exposed the contradiction. Moral Mondays will have changed the tone. I think it says to politicians who get elected in the future that it won't be business as usual."

On the 11th Moral Monday, a CNN producer and photographer have been chasing Barber around the Legislative Building. Members of his entourage are on the phone trying to arrange the interview. Barber occasionally whispers to some of them while he works the crowd of 700 or so, which is spilling off the sidewalk.

"Come on in. Let's get some diversity down here. I need some of these young folks, some sisters. That's right. We're gonna respect the order," Barber says.

Two women are standing on the edge of the crowd, one holding a little girl. Barber, who is smiling and pulling folks into the frame, spots them.

"Let me see the baby," he says. "Bring the baby over here."

The camera turns on. In booming tones, Barber begins his familiar prophecy:

"We have a new demographic emerging that is changing the South. The one thing they don't want to see is us crossing over racial lines and class lines and gender lines and labor lines. When this coalition comes together, you're going to see a New South."

This article appeared in print with the headline "A struggle beyond race."

  • "We're going to make the legislators hear us at Moral Mondays, and then we're going to follow them back home."

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