Tar Heel of the Year: The Rev. William Barber — activist, advocate and preacher

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The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year

The News & Observer recognizes North Carolina residents who have made significant contributions in the last year and beyond. This year, we asked readers to tell us about people who have made a difference in our state. Here are our stories.

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Corrected at 11:45 a.m. on Dec. 30. See details in the story.

Half an hour into a sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington last June about people living on the margins of American society, the Rev. William J. Barber II paused to ask, “Can I preach like I would at home for a minute?”

He shed his professorial tone and slipped into the more passionate style he uses in his pulpit at the mostly African-American Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro.

Heading into the crescendo of his message of how God uses people who have been rejected by society to bring about revolution, he played his voice like a pipe organ, hitting high notes and low ones, holding some and snapping others off. He boomed. He whispered. He trembled. He sweated.

He brought the congregation to its feet.

Asking permission was rhetorical. Barber was going to preach anyway. The truth is, he is at home any time he is talking about the condition of America’s poor, whether that’s at a protest at the N.C. Legislative Building in Raleigh, a get-out-the-vote rally in Mississippi, an international conference at the Vatican or a cathedral in the U.S. capital.

Barber, 55, is The News & Observer’s 2018 Tar Heel of the Year, an honor that recognizes a North Carolina resident who has made lasting and significant contributions in the state and beyond. Four finalists also are honored.

Since stepping down as president of the N.C. NAACP last year, Barber has gone national, using the strategies and momentum of the Moral Monday Movement that brought worldwide attention to what Barber called the regressive policies of extremist North Carolina lawmakers.

When Barber and his followers first gathered to protest the actions of the N.C. General Assembly starting in 2007, he told them that if they pushed back against laws that hurt poor people, women, gays, immigrants, minorities and the uninsured, they could save their state. Now he tells protesters, “We’re fighting to save the soul of America.”

With his skills as a theo-political strategist, his focus on the big picture, his deep understanding of history and his ability to move an audience’s emotions the way a conductor directs a symphony, Barber may be in a unique position to force a conversation about what it means for America to have 140 million citizens living in poverty or with low wealth.

Barber believes he will be wasting his life if he doesn’t try.

“You can’t follow Jesus and not say something when you see injustice,” Barber says. “We’re not allowed to stand down and retreat. The prophetic call demands that we say something.”

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II leaves the vestibule after the service at his Goldsboro church, Greenleaf Christian Church, Sunday, Nov. 18, 2018. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Early influences

As a younger man, Barber didn’t want to heed that call.

Born Aug. 30, 1963, in Indianapolis, Barber likes to point out that he came into the world two days after the historic March on Washington, when a quarter-million people gathered to protest continuing inequalities affecting African-Americans. Had they lived closer, his parents might have joined the crowd and heard Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Barber’s mother, an Indiana native, and his father, from North Carolina, were early participants in the fight for civil rights. The elder William Barber was a seminary graduate and a promising young pastor when E.V. Wilkins, a black educator and activist in Washington County, asked him to come home to North Carolina and help integrate the schools.

The family moved to Roper, where the Barbers were hired at the all-black Union High School and enrolled their son in kindergarten at the black elementary school. When the county desegregated its schools, the elder Barber was hired to teach science and his wife went to work in the office at Plymouth High School, the first African Americans in those positions. As he started second grade, the younger Barber was one of the first black children to enroll in the newly integrated elementary school.

When Barber was 15, he was elected president of the local NAACP Youth Council, an organization that trains young people to fight for political, educational, financial and social rights for minorities. It was an auspicious start to what would be a long relationship between Barber and the NAACP.

Growing up, Barber says, he saw his father was under-appreciated in his sideline as an itinerant preacher, and that some black churches were afraid to host him because of his role as a community organizer and his outspokenness on the ills of racism. It was one of the reasons the younger Barber left the church for a while.

“I was through,” Barber says, and he was so sure about it that he chose to attend college at N.C. Central University in Durham specifically because it didn’t require students to take religion courses. He planned to get a law degree and become a civil rights attorney.

Barber entered student government at Central, serving as class president his freshman and sophomore years.

Rev. William Barber II, president of the NC NAACP, is arrested in front of Sen. Phil Berger’s office during a sit-in Tuesday, May 30, 2017. Thirty-two people were arrested for second-degree trespassing according to General Assembly police chief Martin Brock. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

‘God called me’

As a junior, he was living in a single room on campus and should have been enjoying the life of an experienced upperclassman. Instead, he says, “That room became the place where God called me.”

He kept waking up crying, he says, and finally phoned his father.

“I’m struggling,” he told him.

“I know,” his father said. “Come on home.”

They drove together to the coast, traveling through sections of Eastern North Carolina where some things were little changed from the days when slaves escaped through the swamps in hopes of a fairer life elsewhere.

Church, Barber’s father told him, is an institution run by man and can never be perfect. God always is.

“I think I’m ready,” Barber told his dad.

He graduated from NCCU in 1985 with a degree in political science and enrolled at Duke Divinity School, where he got his master’s degree and delved deep into the history of Christianity, especially as it has been practiced in the United States. He later earned a doctorate in ministry from Drew University’s theological school in Madison, N.J.

It was the mid-1980s, and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority was telling conservative Christians to join the Republican Party and was pushing the party to take anti-abortion and pro-school-prayer stances in its platform.

Another popular religious movement of the time was the rejuvenated “prosperity gospel,” connecting faith to wealth and other measures of success.

Barber didn’t adhere to either. As a scholar of the Bible and American history and politics who says, “the worst thing to be is loud and wrong,” Barber hews to his own brand of religious conservatism. As he puts it, his beliefs adhere to the essential teachings of the Bible and especially of Jesus.

He often tells audiences he is frustrated with what he says is a false national religiosity that has so much to say about homosexuality, abortion and school prayer, “things about which the Bible says so little,” and is nearly silent on mercy, love and justice for the poor, “about which the Bible says so much.”

‘Voice for others’

While he was at Central, Barber met Rebecca McLean. He had organized a campus voter registration drive and a rally to support the Rev. Jesse Jackson in his 1984 run for president. Rebecca came to add her name to the voter roll.

Rebecca, now a psychiatric nurse, says she immediately saw her future husband’s leadership abilities.

“But what impressed me most was that he has always been concerned about those who did not have a voice,” she says. “He stood up for those who are ostracized and oppressed. He always had that voice for others who were not able to speak for themselves.”

They married in 1987. Barber graduated from Duke in ‘89 and was ordained by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the same as his father. The denomination has a strong social justice bent.

After graduating, he took a job as a pastor in Martinsville, Va., then returned to Durham to serve as the campus minister for NCCU in 1992. In 1993, then-Gov. Jim Hunt’s administration appointed Barber to lead the state Human Relations Commission, in charge of enforcing North Carolina’s housing and employment non-discrimination laws.

At the time, Barber was coming around to the notion that, like his father, he didn’t need to lead a church to be an effective preacher or pastor. So when Greenleaf, a church founded by former slaves, called and asked him to come to work there full-time, he declined.

He did agree to preach there while the congregation looked for someone else, but after his first sermon, he says, one of the older women in the church told him the Lord wanted him to “come down here and be our pastor.” Barber couldn’t really explain it, he says, but he accepted the job.

Before he could start it, though, the former high school football player woke up in his bed in Durham in July 1993 in excruciating pain, nearly unable to move. He couldn’t bend his knees, lift his legs or even roll over. An ambulance took him to the hospital, where doctors eventually diagnosed a severe case of ankylosing spondylitis, a rare form of arthritis that had frozen his neck, the base of his spine and his hips in place. He spent several months in the hospital and was told, at age 30, he might never walk on his own again.

Greenleaf’s members stood by Barber through his painful physical rehab and insisted they still wanted him as their pastor. The family moved to Goldsboro, and Barber started an ambitious ministry at the church while he was still using a walker. Within four years, the church launched a community development corporation, called Rebuilding Broken Places, to revitalize the area of north Goldsboro within a two-mile radius of the church. It created 41 low-income senior citizen apartments, a daycare center and job training program, and helped low- and moderate-income families qualify for loans and assistance to acquire their own homes.

“And none of the money comes through the church,” Barber says, so there can be no question of financial impropriety.

Through it all, people who understood his physical problems told Barber, “You can’t do all that.” It was true, he says; he couldn’t. But he was learning that a great mix of people working together could.

Through the church’s work in Goldsboro, Barber saw that despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling ordering the desegregation of public schools, the ones in his town were going backward. The local school board had drawn attendance zones so that, for instance, Goldsboro High School was 99 percent black and most of its students poor.

It was one of many issues that a state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People should address, Barber thought. Running on a campaign that the N.C. NAACP should be less about socializing and more about social justice, Barber was elected president of the group in 2005.

In 2006, Barber and the NAACP convened a group of political scientists, lawyers, activists and religious leaders from across the state for the first meeting of the Historic Thousands on Jones Coalition. They nicknamed it HKonJ, with the “J” for the Jones Street address in Raleigh where the legislature meets. In February 2007, the group presented a list of 14 agenda items for the then-Democrat-led North Carolina legislature, centered around education, a living wage and other workplace issues, health care, voting rights, historical redress, affordable housing, application of the death penalty, environmental justice and immigrant rights.

The group has gathered and held a “Moral March” in Raleigh on the second Saturday in February ever since.

Rev. William Barber stands up on the ledge around the pool to tell observers not to boo the local authorities efforts to keep the crowd safe during the Moral Monday protests at the North Carolina Legislative Building in downtown Raleigh on Monday, July 8, 2013. Al Drago adrago@newsobserver.com

Moral Mondays begin

In 2009, the NAACP sued the Wayne County school system, claiming it was resegregating its schools by race.

But it was in 2013 that Barber began to draw the attention of news crews and social justice organizers around the nation. It was the year after Republican Pat McCrory was elected governor, joining Republican majorities in both the N.C. House and the Senate. (An earlier version of this story indicated an incorrect year Republican majorities were elected in the N.C. House and Senate and when they redrew legislative districts. They won in 2010 and first redrew the districts in 2011.)

In a flurry of activity, the lawmakers cut education funding and unemployment benefits, opted out of Medicaid expansion, restricted abortion and voting rights, relaxed environmental protections and approved House Bill 2, often referred to as “the bathroom bill,” which among other things, prohibited transgender people from using public bathrooms that didn’t match the gender stated on their birth certificates.

Barber led protests at the Legislature, calling them “Moral Mondays.” They started in April with a few hundred people and swelled to thousands through the summer. Demanding to exercise their constitutional right to instruct their elected officials, growing numbers of protesters each week defied orders to leave the legislative building and were arrested.

By August, Barber and 1,000 other people — black and white, old, young, working, retired, some religious and others agnostic — had been processed through the county courthouse for creating a disturbance in “the people’s house.”

“I’m not trying to get arrested,” Barber says. “But they say I need to stop raising the issues, and I can’t do that.” Policies that trap people in poverty, he says, “are morally indefensible, constitutionally inconsistent and economically insane.”

Whether it was the public protests, the legal challenges or the bad publicity for the state that followed, opponents of the conservative agenda saw some success. HB2 — the bathroom bill — eventually was partly repealed. A federal court found the voting rights restrictions unlawful. McCrory became the first sitting North Carolina governor to lose a bid for re-election in 166 years.

Moral Monday became a model for nonviolent civil disobedience and spread to other states.

In North Carolina, the movement and its leader had critics. Thom Goolsby, a Republican who was elected to represent New Hanover County in the state Senate in 2010 and resigned the seat in 2014 after a state investigation found financial improprieties at his investment firm, called the gatherings “Moron Mondays.” Goolsby, now a member of the UNC Board of Governors, said Moral Mondays were liberal theater, acted out by “mostly white, angry, aged former hippies.”

Francis DeLuca, who retired last spring as president of the Raleigh-based conservative public-policy group Civitas, admires Barber’s skills as an organizer. But as Barber prepared to leave his position with the state NAACP, DeLuca said, “My bottom line with him is that he liked to flout that he was a man of the cloth. He wore his clerical garments to rallies where he was whipping people up. I have said to him that he should act more like a reverend and less like a partisan.”

In July 2017, when Barber called it “theological malpractice” for national religious leaders to lay hands on President Donald Trump and pray for him in the Oval Office without challenging his policies, N.C. Republican Party Chairman Robin Hayes said Barber had crossed a line. “Using his role as a supposed faith-based leader to falsely drive citizens away from praying for the good of our nation and our nation’s president is absolutely grotesque,” Hayes said at the time.

Barber is registered as an unaffiliated voter and sees shortcomings in both main political parties. Democrats, he says, have failed to speak out strongly enough against wrong-headed policies, and Republicans have betrayed their roots as the party of Lincoln. When criticizing either one, he says, he tries to attack policies, not people.

In this country, Barber says, preaching cannot be divorced from political action because laws and government practices are causing God’s people to suffer.

“It’s not about the Left or the Right,” Barber says. “It’s about what’s morally right. It’s about the moral center.”

The power of the Moral Monday protests, Barber says, came from the range of people who participated and the reasons they were willing to leave home, search for a downtown parking space, stand in cold or heat or rain and maybe get hauled off to jail.

The Rev. William Barber, N.C. chapter president for the NAACP, is escorted from the Wake County Schools board room in handcuffs after he was arrested for staging a sit-in with three other activists during a recess of the board’s meeting on June 13, 2010. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Barber says at least 200 different advocacy groups were represented at the events.

Longtime North Carolina civil rights attorney Al McSurely, who has known Barber since the early 2000s, says Barber’s coalition-building makes him a better strategist than even Martin Luther King Jr.

“That is the brilliance, the genius of Rev. Barber,” McSurely says. “It was to figure out how to welcome Christians and atheists and agnostics and Jews and Buddhists and Muslims and all these people into the Moral Monday movement.”

William Turner Jr., a retired Duke Divinity professor, taught Barber and remains friends with him. He believes Barber and his message resonate with his audiences at rallies, in churches and online through live streaming and YouTube videos, because, “He has a combination of some deep prophetic spirituality, intellectual prowess and a ring of authenticity. He is authentically William Barber wherever you put him. He embodies his element and takes it with him where he goes.

“I just haven’t seen anyone who could command the hearing and the respect from so many people across so many lines ... since King,” Turner says.

In 2015, Barber founded Repairers of the Breach to formalize the mission of the Moral Monday movement and to help it spread nationwide by organizing and training others in moral analysis and activism, which sometimes includes civil disobedience.

Rev. William Barber makes a speech at the Bicentennial Mall as members of the Moral Monday rally across the street from the legislative building Monday, May 16, 2016. Hundreds of protesters convened on the General Assembly to protest controversial HB2. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

A reborn Poor People’s Campaign

Last year, Barber and Liz Theoharis of the New York-based Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice announced that together, their groups would launch a rebirth of the national Poor People’s Campaign. The original was a project of King’s that was just a few months old when the civil rights leader was assassinated in 1968.

Fifty years later, Barber and Theoharis say, tens of millions of people in one of the richest nations on Earth still can’t afford basic necessities, and most political leaders rarely mention the fact.

The new campaign kicked off in May with 40 days of protests and civil disobedience organized by committees formed in 40 states. Like the coalition behind Moral Mondays, Barber and Theoharis say, the committees are multiracial and interfaith, focused on problems common to all of the country’s poor. Videos of the events have been watched more than 2 million times.

The campaign then moved into another phase, holding “hearings” around the country and demanding remedies. Public officials were invited to attend, but only to listen as local residents shared their experiences: caring for sick children with no health insurance, working for decades at jobs where they never got raises, developing health problems after drinking water contaminated for years by coal ash.

At one such hearing in Greensboro in late October, Barber and Theoharis both came to address the crowd. Organizers had taped signs inside the sanctuary declaring that “Denying Health Care is Violence,” “Starving a Child is Violence” and “The War on the Poor Is Immoral.”

Theoharis, a Presbyterian minister who has done anti-poverty work throughout her career, says people who doubt that a Poor People’s Campaign can make a difference need to study history.

“We have seen throughout history that when people who are most impacted by a problem unite with clergy and moral leadership and others of good will, they can amass power and win demands and change how things currently are to how they should be,” she says. “At one time, people said we would not be able to end slavery in our country.”

About 200 people came to the event in Greensboro, a mix of black, white and Hispanic, including couples with young children and men and women in their 60s and 70s. Many more watched online. The two-and-a-half hour event had elements of a political rally and of the last night of a week-long church revival, with music that went from hymns to spirituals to freedom songs.

Barber, a baritone when he’s in the spirit, didn’t sing much that night. It had been a difficult week. A white man with a gun tried to get into a black church in a suburb of Louisville, Ky., but the doors were locked. He went to a grocery store instead and opened fire, killing a man who was shopping with his grandson, then gunning down a woman in the parking lot. Both victims were black.

The next day, pipe bombs filled with shards of glass started showing up on their way to former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, former Vice President Joseph Biden and others, as well as to CNN’s offices in New York. Then a man shouting antisemitic slurs walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 people with an assault-style rifle.

The news of the week and the stories of the people who give their testimony at the hearings are sources of emotional pain, Barber says. He is also in constant physical pain from the arthritis that has made his joints so unyielding that he can’t flex enough to sit in a chair but is most comfortable perched on a high stool, leaning back with his legs outstretched.

Over the past couple of years, Barber says, he’s lost about 100 pounds, which has helped his overall health, but he’s still a big man. He would be 6’1’’ tall if the arthritis would allow him to stand straight. It forces him instead to lean slightly forward when he stands or walks, which usually requires a cane. It also has permanently lowered his head so that when he stares out — into a congregation or a camera or the face of one of his church members — he is looking out from under the frontal bone of the skull, making what he has to say seem extremely urgent.

Earlier that month, the MacArthur Foundation named Barber one of its 2018 fellows for his work building a broad-based coalition to fight racism and economic inequalities. The honor comes with a $625,000 “Genius Grant” to continue the work, payable over five years.

If he ever finds he’s no longer physically able to travel the country during the week and return to Goldsboro to lead Sunday morning worship at Greenleaf, Barber says it’s a comfort to know he could afford to leave his pastorate and continue the Poor People’s Campaign. He’s not there yet.

“I like pastoring a church,” he says. “It’s fleshy,” and keeps him personally engaged in the lives of the people. Of his disability, he notes that many Biblical and historical figures have dealt with physical challenges. “It’s not what we face,” he says, “but how.”

Barber delivered a rousing sermon to the crowd in Greensboro using scripture about one of his favorite prophets, Ezekiel, whom God told to preach about repentance even if no one listened. As he always does, Barber gave the crowd facts about poverty, including that in raw numbers, there are more poor whites than of any other race. Don’t fall for that age-old political trick, he cautioned them, of believing that one group of poor people is trying to take resources from another.

Then, as he also always does, because, “You can’t leave ‘em in the nightmare,” he told them that God doesn’t need everybody to stand up on behalf of the poor; he just needs a few. He asked them, “Will you be one?”

When he finished, Barber walked stiffly off the stage to a waiting car that took him to the airport for a flight to Kentucky and a rally the next day. As he left, the campaign’s musicologist, Yara Allen, led the audience on “Break Every Chain,” repeating the verses until nearly everyone was singing along.

“There’s an army rising up,” the crowd chorused.

Barber believes there is.

Rev. William J. Barber II

Age: 55

Hometown: Goldsboro. Born in Indianapolis.

Education: Graduated Plymouth High School. Bachelor of Arts from N.C. Central University, 1985. Master of Divinity, Duke, 1989. Doctorate in ministry, Drew University, 2003.

Family: Wife, Rebecca McLean Barber; five children; brother, Charles Barber of Georgia.

Professional life: Ordained as minister, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 1989. President of N.C. NAACP from 2006 to 2017 and has been a member of the national board of the NAACP since 2005. Pastor, Greenleaf Christian Church, Goldsboro, since 1993. Founder and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach. Distinguished visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary, New York, N.Y. Co-author of “Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation,” “The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics and the Rise of a New Justice Movement,” and “Revive Us Again: Vision and Action in Moral Organizing.”

Accomplishments: 2018 MacArthur Fellow. 2010 recipient of North Carolina’s Order of the Long Leaf Pine. 2006 Recipient of the NAACP’s Juanita Jackson Mitchell Award for legal activism. 2010 recipient of the National NAACP Kelly Alexander Award. Member, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. Barber is a member of the College of Affirming Bishops; a Prince Hall Mason, 33°.Scottish Rite, and a Shriner.

Hobbies and interests: Reading, fishing, swimming for therapy, and watching old-school cartoons, especially those featuring Looney Tunes characters Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner.

Tar Heel of the Year

This year, there are four finalists, revealed in alphabetical order. Here is who has been announced so far:

Richard Brunson: The executive director of NC Baptists on Mission since 1992 has made the organization’s volunteers a critical component of disaster response in North Carolina and around the country, including hurricanes and earthquakes.

Rhiannon Giddens: The musician is one of the most acclaimed to come out of North Carolina. Her accolades include a Grammy Award and a 2017 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” fellowship. She focuses on the under-represented, under-sung contributions of African-Americans to the cultural canon.

Jaki Shelton Green: Green is the North Carolina Poet Laureate, the state’s first African-American to hold the role. She has made a career out of reaching out to diverse, under-represented communities to find the poetry there.

William Lewis: The executive director of PineCone is one of the forces behind the rise of traditional folk music in Raleigh. He helped persuade the International Bluegrass Music Association to move its annual convention from Nashville to Raleigh. The World of Bluegrass is now one of the city’s signature events — as well as a financial boon.

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Martha Quillin is a general assignment reporter at The News & Observer who writes about North Carolina culture, religion and social issues. She has held jobs throughout the newsroom since 1987.