'My hope is built': A father-son talk with Rev. William Barber II
One of the key leaders of that protest movement was my father, the Rev. William Barber II, an Eastern North Carolina native and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, where I grew up. His work in communities impacted by policy violence to build the interracial, inter-religious, intergenerational "fusion coalitions" necessary to confront systemic violence taught me the importance of connecting history, policy, and grassroots organizing to fuel social change. The mass movement he helped build continues to shape my own views and hopes for our region's people.
On April 24, he and other organizers will hold a Moral Monday 10-Year Anniversary and Recommitment Rally at the state capitol in Raleigh. "Ten years ago, we stood together, withstood some of the most extreme attacks on democracy since Jim Crow, made significant change and helped bring North Carolina new leadership and moral vision," the organizers said in announcing the event. "Let's stand together again and continue to build a People's Moral Fusion Movement in North Carolina for the next decade to come."
Today my father, a former president of the state NAACP, serves as co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach, and founding director of the Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School. I recently had a chance to talk with him about how my grandparents shaped his work as an organizer, the historic inspiration for the Moral Monday movement, and how he manages to maintain hope during these times of deep crisis. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
When I was growing up, you were very intentional about taking me with you to different communities and movement spaces across North Carolina. One of the things that I always noticed in your work was how you amplified the voices of marginalized communities in a way that promoted their political power. Talk about the importance of being close to communities to empower people to fight for social change.
Well, I think that part of being in community is how I grew up, part of the ethics of the family that I was raised in — in a family that lived in one of the poorest congressional districts in the entire country, some say the 13th poorest. And all we had was family. It was taught early on by your grandfather because he constantly modeled family, bringing people in together, working on problems together. Early on in my life, I experienced people coming in doing what's called "work camps" in the summer, where Black and white college students would come into a poor community and stay within that community over a period of two weeks. And during the day they would dig wells and help weatherize houses. And at night they would talk about what it means in terms of faith, in terms of ethics, in terms of what it meant for their lives, and for their family.
They would become a part of the community. They would always center marginalized people, not just as people to be beneficent toward but as people who had a great deal to teach and to share about this nation, about this world, and about what justice really ought to look like.
On the other hand, your grandmother was always bringing people into our home. She bought a piano so she could help train children whose family couldn't afford a piano. She would charge people $1 for a music book that cost $5 just so they could have dignity about buying the book, knowing that that would be the only way that child might ever get exposed to a professional piano lesson and being trained to be a concert pianist. So our house, in some ways at one point, was like a command post or a community post. And when I would ask my mother why she did that, she would say, "Because you have to give back, and you can't forget your community."
Before I went off to college, my father brought people over to the trailer we lived in at the time and had them outside and had them get in a circle to put me in the middle of the circle and then told me to look at these people and said, "Remember, you owe God and you owe these folk, these people who helped put a community around you. Many of them are more brilliant than you. They just didn't get an opportunity to go. You're getting the opportunity to go to college, so don't forget, now."
I was raised in this sense of movement building that began from the bottom up. I traveled with my father, just like I took you all with me. I would go into the homes and the places where people didn't have water, didn't have resources, or they were under the struggle against systemic racism, lack of fair wages. I was right there as a child listening and learning, in the car questioning, "What did that mean? What's really going on here?" So, in my early years I was taught that you don't just go and work for people, you work with them.
Theologically, my faith requires a centering of people who are at the margins that should have never been created in the first place, that have been pushed out of the center, when they very well should be the center of our political ethical consideration because they're at the center of God's concern. And if you're going to believe in God or claim God, you cannot dismiss those at the center and in the margin. You have to walk with them, learn from them, and cry out for justice with them and with their presence.
Our family has deep roots in North Carolina, and you have been doing grassroots organizing work in the state for years. Discuss your relationship to the state and how it gave rise to the organizing efforts that led up to the Moral Monday Movement.
Well, all I've ever known is North Carolina. I was born in Indianapolis, as you know, two days after March on Washington. And people often asked me, "Well, how did you get in the movement?" I said, "Cause my daddy had got in the car and drove us all the way back to North Carolina." Because of his commitment to the civil rights movement, he was invited along with my mother back to North Carolina to help desegregate schools in 1964. About 10 years after the Brown v. Board decision, schools still hadn't been desegregated in North Carolina. A principal named E.V. Wilkins picked up the phone and called my father, who had been raised in Eastern North Carolina, who had gone to Elizabeth City State and Saint Augustine's and said, "Can you come home? Can you come home, and help be a part of the transformation?"
So we came home. And home for him was the Free Union, Piney Woods community, of which we are part of and was born by Black freed people and white people and Tuscarora Indians. He came home and he brought my mother, who had been born in Indianapolis. Her father was from West Virginia, mother was from Georgia. But he came home. And when I think about what pushed me into Moral Monday or what informs me, it was being raised in the family where there was no separation between a conversation about Jesus and justice. It was being with my father in so many ways, so many different places he was at.
I knew about the people who we now say were the founders of, for instance, the movement against environmental racism in Warren County, because those were friends of my father's; they'd come to the house, or I'd meet them riding with him. What led to the Moral Monday movement and the concepts around that, I think now, was certainly the framing that I got early on from my father.
In my early work with NAACP, I started out as a youth president, eventually became state president of the NAACP of North Carolina. And when I became president, I ran saying that we would focus on labor issues and voting rights and economic justice. The first thing we did was we said we would convene a mass people's assembly to lay out what were the critical issues facing us when it comes to addressing poverty and racism and denial of health care. This was 2005, 2006, 2007. We put out the call for a need for a people's assembly, and some 5,000-plus people showed up, and in 2007 we presented to North Carolina a 14-point agenda, right at the General Assembly. This is all prior to Moral Monday.
So, Moral Monday grew out of this Forward Together Moral Movement and the Historic Thousands on Jones Street's (HKonJ) People's Assembly movement. And prior to Moral Monday beginning, we had been mobilizing for over six years. We even started mobilizing when Democrats were leading everything. And early on, the first time we came together, we fought for raising the minimum wage. We fought for expanding opportunities to vote, same-day registration, early voting. And we fought to put in place the Racial Justice Act to address issues when people had been wrongfully assigned the death penalty in ways that were racist. And interestingly, when we all got together, we won. Then when 2012 came, a supermajority of Republicans were elected because North Carolina was gerrymandered in 2010. And when they won, they declared all these things they were going to do — block health care, block living wages, block union rights, just going down the line.
But then in April of 2013, they decided that they would literally block voting rights and proposed the worst voter suppression bill that had ever been seen in this country since Jim Crow. They also did it during Holy Week. But what we knew is that there had to be a moral response to this. There had to be people who would stay committed against the injustices this General Assembly was doing, even if they lost elections for a while, so that they would not become depressed simply because the supermajority was bent on going backwards — that they would become more intensified in their action to build up a countermovement.
And that's exactly what happened. Moral Monday came into being April of 2013 and has stood the test of time ever since. We learned that you just have to build a movement rooted in our deepest moral values, rooted in the Constitution and our faith.
And we have to understand the movement as taking on what we call "interlocking injustices," that's not just about silo issues but about the multiplicity of issues that in some way connect. Because oftentimes, the same persons that are denying health care, for instance, are the same persons denying living wages. We don't need to challenge each one in a separate way. We need to bring our collective moral forces together to challenge them in a comprehensive way.
The work of Moral Monday was deeply rooted in Reconstruction history, which scholars have called America's "first experiment at a multiracial democracy." Tell us about the historical inspiration that flowed through the Moral Monday Movement.
At the beginning of the HKonJ people's assembly, I sat down with [historian and writer] Tim Tyson, and [civil rights attorney] Al McSurely, and people like [law professor] Irv Joyner, and others and said, "What really has worked in the South?" We knew that knowing the history of movements in the South and being a student of those movements was extremely important.
And what we all dawned on was that in the South, in the late 19th century, there was this movement after slavery, when former slaves and free Black folk found their way to poor white folks to begin having a conversation. They figured out that slavery and racism had bamboozled them all, and that even in the post-slavery era the former slave owners were trying to use the riff of race to continue to hold onto power and to continue to oppress people.
They decided no. They said, "We are not going for that." And so they decided that, together, they would rewrite Southern constitutions. They would ban slavery. They would declare that all governments' work should be for the good of the whole. They would guarantee education for everybody, regardless of race. They would guarantee the right to be treated right in their jury box and in the courtroom, regardless of race. They declared that men should have the right to vote, regardless of race, and then eventually push for efforts for women to have that same right as well.
They formed power. Within five years, they ended the Civil War. Basically, all Southern legislatures were controlled by a fusion Black-white coalition that said, "We are going to do everything we can to undo the vestiges of slavery and move the nation forward." They signaled it by the way they wrote the preambles of the constitutions after slavery. For instance, in North Carolina the Reconstruction Constitution says — and this is Black and white people working together, saying, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator certain inalienable rights among which are life, liberty, the enjoyment of the fruit of their own labor" — which sets the stage for, you can't enjoy your own labor if you're a slave, but you also can't enjoy your own labor if you don't have labor rights.
The amount of success the Reconstruction movement had up until 1877 when you had the selection of Rutherford B. Hayes as president through the Electoral College — and when he went in the office, he promised the former plantation owners and others that he would pull the troops out of the South that were protecting people, and he would remove federal oversight. When he got in office and pulled those troops out, it was basically the end of Reconstruction. And slowly but in very significant ways, they began to overturn rights — to sit in jury boxes, to cast a ballot. They began to cut taxes so they could defund public education, defund any kind of access to health care.
And then in 1896, you get Plessy v. Ferguson, separate but equal, the law of the land. In 1898 you get the Wilmington riots that signals a whole season of rioting around the country, particularly in the South, trying to put Black workers back in their places and trying to undermine Black and white people working together. And then in 1901, the last Black person in the Congress, who happened to be from North Carolina, left and gave a great speech talking about why he was leaving but that like the phoenix the progressive people and others would one day rise from this.
When we looked at this, we said, "Wow. All this happened right after slavery because Black and white people came together and saw how they were being sold a bunch of foolishness because of racism?" We said, "What if that could happen today?" Then we looked at the Second Reconstruction [the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s]. We saw some of the same pieces. So, we said, "What if we could have a Reconstruction-type movement, and right in North Carolina, and it could bring together people of all different races and creed? But around an agenda that spoke clearly to systemic racism, clearly to systemic poverty, clearly to the denial of health care, clearly to the vestiges of racism, and policy racism."
When we started modeling that, it was amazing to us how many people were already ready for it. In 2007, we put out a call for people to come who wanted to put before the nation, the state, a Reconstruction agenda of 14 elements, we would present it to the state General Assembly, and 5,000-plus people showed up. And there were people by the thousands, drawn together by this Reconstruction framing that we had lifted out of the 19th century and brought over into the 21st century. We've been using it ever since.
And I do believe that the nation began the process of a possibility of a Third Reconstruction with the 2008 electorate that elected President Obama and broke through in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, and South Carolina. I'm not talking about him, but the electorate signaled something. And I think the extremists saw it clearly and immediately started saying, "What must we do to put this back in the box?" Because they saw the failing of these walls put up by the Southern strategy that had been developed with an intentional goal of what they call "positive polarization" — splitting people from one another, dividing the nation using racial animus and animus against the gay community and the peace movement to split people forever so that they could control the country.
And I think that when they saw this breaking through, I think that it scared them so bad. Look at the level of voter suppression tactics that began to rise up, all about trying to prevent at the ballot box the full expression of a Third Reconstruction electorate.
You have said that Moral Mondays served as a model for "fusion politics" across the South. Can you explain what this term means and the philosophy behind it?
Well, fusion politics is when people come together in transformative coalitions, not in transactional coalitions where they're there for their issue and then after their issue is over they're gone.
Fusion is like when you bring pieces of two elements together in a way that creates something that nobody can do without. You look at issues through how they're connected, so you don't see voter suppression as an issue over here without seeing how denial of health care is connected, how denial of living wages is connected. Fusion says you understand how they're connected. And you understand the powers want to divide them, because they understand that if people see they're connected and see how the powers are working together to divide, they can be overturned.
And how are they overturned? They're overturned when you fuse — when you fuse Black voters from the southern part of North Carolina and the Black Belt with white voters in the western part of the state and you can get them to understand that the same people that are blocking voting rights are hurting Black people in the eastern part of the state and blocking living wages. In fact, you can show them that those blockages also hurt them in the West. You can also clearly show them that the people who are taking their water rights in the West are the same ones that are undermining health care. Eyes begin to open up politically and they can see differently. That's what fusion allows you to do. It allows you to fuse your efforts to bring people together.
What do you see as the key accomplishments of the Moral Monday movement, and what are some of the ongoing challenges we need to confront given that in the decade since the movement began Republican-led state legislatures across the South have in many ways become more entrenched in their regressive ideology?
Well, I'll let other people talk about that. But historians and pollsters have said these things: Number one, we're the largest and longest mobilization of a fusion coalition in the South — 1,200 arrests plus, and one time nearly 100,000 people in the street. It was the largest committed nonviolent civil disobedience at a statehouse in the South. Another accomplishment is when we started an extremist governor like McCrory was at something like almost 60% in the polls. In a few weeks, he was down into the 40s and 30s and couldn't recover. We registered massive numbers of voters who joined this fusion coalition. Their registration and participation was what put somebody like the governor that we have in office now. North Carolina was the only Southern state that sent an incumbent tea party extremist home.
Some say that the Moral Monday protests put pressure in the right place to build towards the kind of pushback that was needed against voter suppression. Because we — not only in the Moral Monday movement, I worked with the NAACP at the time — had a mobilizing strategy but we also had a voter registration strategy. We had a litigation strategy. All of those things were connected. And North Carolina would have suffered even more if it had not been for this massive coming together of the people.
And we brought together people from all across the state. The first gathering we did on Moral Monday outside of Raleigh was over 10,000 people in Asheville. We were able to pull together people from Mitchell County. Often places like Mitchell County, so-called progressives, they write off those places. We didn't.
The challenge is keeping the idea going and the movement going. As soon as a movement, like a Moral Monday movement, is focused on just one issue or one people, it dissipates. Fusion is the key. Another thing about a fusion movement is you always put impacted people in the front of the leadership, not behind.
I think one of the great things that it did is it taught people how to fight for what you believe in when you are in the minority politically. Because too many people, if they're in the minority politically, they just feel like you go home and just sit and wait till the next election. Moral Monday said, "No, you have work to do. You still have to keep raising dissent. You have to raise the moral critique."
Some of your current work is geared toward training a new generation of activists. What are the most important lessons you have to offer them in this current moment of social crisis?
The work I'm engaged in now with the Center for Public Policy and Public Theology is particularly focused on training clergy. My work now says that every generation needs moral leaders. And so I will be trying to train students in this thinking about public policy, public theology, morality, justice, and civic engagement. My goal is to get the theologians and pastors in the same room with impacted people, in the same room with policy people, and they learn how to come together, what to do as fusion movements in the 21st century, to work to address the critical issues of our time.
Part of what it means to leave a legacy is to help develop people who can do what you've tried to do even better than you could do it. I don't believe that Moses has to die for Joshua to arise, that Sarah has to die for her daughter to arise. And in fact, there are times when we become elders, 60, 65, 70 years old in the movement, and God has allowed us to still be here. We have a responsibility to pour into generations not that are coming behind us but are actually walking beside us.
With so many crises unfolding all at once, what keeps you hopeful and focused on building a sustained progressive movement across the South and the country?
The injustices that are out here are many, and the opponents of love are many. The trickery that they use is many. Seeing political coups d'etat happening in state capitals around this country, and people just bent on trying to use power they received from the public to only give more power to the corporations and the greedy and to push aside those at the margin.
All that may be true, but I really believe something that South Africans said. When apartheid looked like it was most powerful and could never be stopped, they said, "A dying mule kicks the hardest." They had this notion that sometimes when you see the most egregious thing happening it is because the forces of injustice see that their time is limited, that the demographics are against them because of the way the electorate is shifting. That their false claims are now being proven to be false claims. Lies don't live forever.
So I'm hopeful every time I see a new generation willing to stand for what's right and push for what's right and put their bodies on the line in civil disobedience. That's what gives me hope. Hope is not a non-action word.
We used to sing a song, "My Hope Is Built." Hope is something you have to build, it's not something you just sit around and think about. My hope is built. For me, it's built on my faith — that I don't believe God has left his world alone. God yet still has people in the Earth who he's using in mighty ways to be instruments of love and justice. My hope is built on seeing the reality of people in this world who are committed to justice even against overwhelming odds. Hope is never willing to quit. And I believe that if I can do my part, I can pass on something to somebody else, and they can pass it on to somebody else. And that way, they can spread, and they can grow, and we can see transformation.
You always have to have prophetic imagination before there's prophetic implementation. That hope must be born in the heart and the mind before it's actually born in reality. And so the very fact that I still get up every morning with hope, I still get up every morning with a commitment to stand for justice, I still try to get up every morning empowered, in spite of my own physical disabilities, to try and do what is right. That in itself gives you hope, because you know that you are not alone in these struggles for justice.