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The Rev. William Barber: Person of the Year 

click to enlarge The Rev. William Barber leading a Moral Monday march to the General Assembly.

Photo by Bob Geary

The Rev. William Barber leading a Moral Monday march to the General Assembly.

Pope Francis is Time magazine's Person of the Year for his exhortations against unfettered capitalism and the "idolatry of money."

I'm torn, for person of the year, between the pope and Nelson Mandela, whose death reminded us that the greatest among us are those who sacrifice for the common good. Mandela, tried for the capital crime of opposing apartheid in South Africa, expected to die for justice. Instead, he was imprisoned for 27 years and did more for humanity each day in his cell than any billionaire could do in a lifetime.

All of which is prelude to my person of the year in North Carolina. I've gone back and forth between two candidates: Art Pope, the conservative chain-store owner and multimilionaire whose philosophy of unfettered capitalism seems so triumphant now in Raleigh. And the Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. NAACP and leader of the Moral Monday protests against Pope's regime—Art Pope's, not the pope's.

If the measure is which of the two men dominated in 2013, then Art Pope is the winner. For two decades, Pope poured tens of millions of dollars of his family's fortune into conservative organizations and Republican candidacies. Give him this: He was patient, a little like Mandela. Finally this year, with Republicans in complete control of state government and Pope installed as budget director, our public sector was decimated, and business—the making of money—was exalted as the answer to everything.

Educating our children, protecting our air and our water, assuring that everyone has health care, all of these human needs were either sacrificed for the sake of private profits (and tax cuts for corporations) or else privatized on the theory that for-profit companies can serve the public better than public employees. Pope's kingdom has truly come.

This idea that markets know best, however, and that finance capitalists should rule is what Pope Francis excoriated.

"Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world," the pope wrote. "This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting."

If we heed the pope, Art Pope cannot be our person of the year.

As wretched as 2013 has been for North Carolina, its very excesses exposed the need to curb markets with morality and lift community values against the bankers. Thankfully, the Rev. Barber and the Moral Monday movement were equal to the task. Because of Barber and the thousands who pitched in with him, 2013 may one day be remembered as the year Art Pope's unfettered capitalism began to give way in Raleigh to a new politics of stewardship and caring for one another and our environment.

We live in a dangerous time, when advances in technology and global finance make it possible for a very few to control our lives. Mindless capitalism gives us oil and gas extraction, regardless of damages. It replaces jobs with labor-saving methods that would make our lives easier if their benefits were widely shared—but capitalism isn't about sharing. If government, then, becomes of, by and for the capitalists, as it is in Raleigh, we're in deep trouble.

The Rev. Barber and the Moral Monday protests did not spring up overnight. Barber has long preached for justice and a movement to combat poverty. He's brought thousands together—blacks, whites, young and old, poor and rich—for seven annual HKonJ rallies at the General Assembly each February. The 14-point platform is a road map to a better life for all of us.

Undaunted by the struggle, the Rev. Barber takes the long view. "When it comes to what is right and what is just and what is moral for all people," he says, "because of who we are, we shall not be moved."

The pope would approve. So would Mandela. The Rev. William Barber gives us hope. He's my person of the year.

This article appeared in print with the headline "The Rev. William Barber: Person of the Year."

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