The Rev. William J. Barber II got a call recently from a cruise organizer for The Nation, the 149-year-old weekly magazine with a deep left-leaning fan base.
The caller wanted to know whether Barber, the leader of North Carolina’s NAACP chapter, could spend a week in December cruising the eastern Caribbean as a part of a panel that included Nation publishers, writers and editors, big thinkers and celebrities such as film director Oliver Stone.
It’s a measure of how Barber’s name, and fame, are spreading. Adamant in his opposition to state Republicans’ legislative action and policy changes, the hulking Goldsboro preacher has emerged as the voice and face of the “Moral Monday” movement at a time when state Democrats lack a strong figurehead.
Barber will set sail in seven months with his wife to far-flung ports in Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Bahamas, but he’s charting a familiar course here. The N.C. General Assembly goes back into session Wednesday, and Barber and his followers plan to be there shortly after, just as they were last year when thousands gathered for weekly demonstrations that led to 945 arrests.
Barber, one of the first to be arrested, has been traveling the state and country since the 2013 session. With Republicans in full control for the first time in more than a century, lawmakers pushed through an agenda that has been described as a model from the American Legislative Exchange Council and other political organizations pushing conservative ideas.
“In this current leadership, we don’t call them ‘Republicans,’ ” Barber says. “We call them ‘extremists.’ ”
Barber was unsuccessful last year in his efforts to persuade Senate leader Phil Berger or House Speaker Thom Tillis to have a discussion about the issues troubling him and many of the demonstrators gathered outside their chamber doors. Gov. Pat McCrory’s staff has suggested a lunch meeting, but nothing is scheduled yet.
Last month, Barber received a letter from Berger asking about NAACP issues and positions while criticizing Barber for what Berger described as “over-the-top rhetoric and tactics” undermining “the ability to engage in a serious and meaningful debate.”
“We treated his letter as if he was sincere,” Barber says. “It’s not something we haven’t been willing to share. It’s been out there.”
In the summer session, the NAACP and other organizations have a five-pronged strategy focusing on sweeping issues – equal access to good public schools, health care for all, pro-labor, anti-poverty policies, fixing inequalities in the criminal justice system, and protecting and expanding voting rights. A rally is planned for May 19. A Monday, of course.
“We will be back just as we were last year,” Barber says. “Whether or not we will be arrested for civil disobedience does not depend on us.”
‘You have to act’
Monday after Monday last year, a groundswell of demonstrators gathered at the state Legislative Building to fight state policy laws that they worried were transforming North Carolina into a laboratory for a national conservative agenda.
Republicans cut benefits for the long-term unemployed, declined to expand Medicaid, directed public school money to private-school vouchers, rolled back benefits for public school teachers while giving tax breaks to higher-income taxpayers, changed the rules for abortion clinics and made sweeping changes to state voting laws.
Barber, 50, borrowed slogans from the civil rights movement of his childhood such as “forward together, not one step back.” He became the architect of what he calls “a movement, not a moment.”
In his dark preacher suits and starched white shirt, Barber hunkers his large frame over his cane and talks about what has motivated him to rise at 6 a.m. most days and crisscross the state and country.
Outside at a lectern, his voice thunders with the fiery oratory of a practiced Southern preacher. Inside, in one-on-one conversation, he talks swiftly but gently. Simply, he explains what drives him.
“This is not about this party or that,” Barber says. “This is about morality. Last year, you saw those laws only on paper. This year you can see how they’re hurting people. As a preacher, you can’t stand back and watch this. You have to act.”
Barber was born in Indianapolis on Aug. 30, 1963, two days after the historic March on Washington. His father, an itinerant preacher and teacher, was in the sea of 250,000 marchers when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
In the late 1960s, William J. Barber moved his family back to North Carolina to help integrate the Washington County schools.
His father taught science at a formerly all-white high school. His mother became the school’s first black office manager. The Barber house became a meeting place for guests ranging from civil rights leaders to next-door neighbors.
Barber went to N.C. Central University with plans of becoming a lawyer, but he found his calling in preaching instead.
With an activism steeped in the life of Southern black churches, Barber blends church and state in his life.
In his travels, he carries a Bible with more than 2,000 passages marked. “The Poverty and Justice Bible” highlights the many places in Scripture where God not only shows compassion for the poor, the marginalized and oppressed, but also seeks justice.
“There was an experiment done at one time, and it showed that if you take out all the pages of the Bible that speak to that, it would literally fall apart,” Barber says. “The extremists focus on about five scripture readings.”
Since assuming leadership of the state NAACP nine years ago, Barber has brought a crackling energy to an organization that some worried had become too lethargic.
In 2006 and 2007, he frequently weighed in on the Duke lacrosse case, highlighting issues of racial disparity while urging people to withhold judgment on the accused and accuser until the legal process played out.
In 2009, he championed the Racial Justice Act and unsuccessfully fought its repeal last year.
In 2010, he stepped into the fray over Wake County schools, protesting the neighborhood-based plan that he considered a threat to diversity and the desegregation of a public school system his parents worked to build. He was arrested then, too.
Barber urged voters to defeat Amendment One, the state constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. Though his efforts failed at the polls, Barber was instrumental in persuading the national NAACP to support gay marriage.
Through support of gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose abortion, issues that have not always received ringing endorsements in black churches, Barber has embraced issues that help him build what he calls a “fusion movement.”
“All that created this new higher ground,” says Al McSurely, a Chapel Hill lawyer in the NAACP and a defense attorney representing of some of the protesters.
‘A bunch of hot air’
The crowds that rally with Barber, NAACP representatives like to point out, have been a mix of young and old, black, white, Latino and other races, straight and gay, men and women.
Barber and other NAACP leaders teamed up with a Republican mayor and county commissioner in the small town of Belhaven to fight the closing of Vidant Pungo Hospital, a facility that serves many lower-income North Carolinians in the eastern part of the state.
Barber was in New York on Palm Sunday delivering the sermon “A Moral Movement for the Nation” at Riverside Church in New York, where King voiced his opposition to the Vietnam War in 1967. In March, he preached and offered strategy tips in Madison, Wis., where large protests broke out in 2011 over Republican policies involving labor unions.
“One of the things that we found appealing about what was going on in North Carolina was that it appeared to be a multi-issue, multi-racial, broad-based movement that also was not affiliated with any political party,” says Patrick Barrett, administrative director of the Havens Center for the Study of Social Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Groups in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama have started their own rallies and demonstrations patterned after the North Carolina events. Barber has talked with people in Missouri, Arkansas and other states, too.
In those states, as in North Carolina, he urges his audiences to vote and to register new voters. At home and on the road, Barber has heard familiar criticisms.
Critics call him a “race-baiter,” a sore loser who can’t stomach a Republican victory at the polls and an opportunist more interested in being in the public eye than having true debate about his issues of concern.
“He’s a bunch of hot air, a self-serving publicity hound,” says Francis de Luca, president of Civitas Institute, a champion of much of the 2013 legislation.
Barber has declined to debate Civitas, the conservative institute supported by the family of Art Pope, the state budget director and a big spender on Republican candidates.
“That’s just a diversion,” Barber says. “Civitas doesn’t have to uphold the Constitution. We’ve tried to keep our focus on the elected officials, on the legislators and governor.”
That focus will be evident, he vows, on May 19.
Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1