The Rev. William J. Barber II will step down as head of the state chapter of the NAACP in June, after more than a decade of leadership that has given the civil rights organization a prominent voice in state politics and its leader a higher profile on the national stage.
Barber will help organize a new Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., and 25 states even as he continues to serve as pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro. He also will remain on the national NAACP board.
In a phone interview Thursday, Barber, 53, stressed that he still will be based in North Carolina and paying attention to what happens in his home state. But he said he’ll be turning his attention to a national effort that will focus on many of the same issues he has been highlighting here for much of the past decade.
“I’m not leaving the state,” Barber said. “I’m accepting a call, a very spiritual call.”
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Barber’s legacy includes the “Moral Monday” movement, a series of protests at the General Assembly and elsewhere on behalf of the poor and the disenfranchised. He says those experiences will help him as he continues to work with other states, including Tennessee and Georgia, which already have created similar models.
When Barber rose to leadership in the state NAACP almost 12 years ago, his goal was to give new energy and a new battle cry to an organization that he worried had been become too lethargic.
“We have to move from banquet to battle,” Barber said in 2006 during an interview at his Goldsboro church. “We have to broaden the membership.”
Since then, Barber, a preacher with a booming voice, has been a presence in many of North Carolina’s high-profile moments. He urged people to be patient as questions swirled around the Duke lacrosse case and let the wheels of justice turn toward the truth. But he did not back down from an opportunity to highlight issues of racism, classism and sexual violence threaded through the narrative of the case.
In Wake County, he led opposition to an attempt by the school board in 2010 to dismantle the diversity policy for the state’s largest school system.
In 2013, the first year Republicans held control of both chambers of the North Carolina General Assembly and the governor’s office, Barber organized regular protests in Raleigh that led to more than a thousand arrests.
Though his leadership on such efforts had led to many followers and supporters, Barber also has critics. Some say he works more to divide people than unite divergent voices with a common goal. They say he acts too much like a politician and too little like a preacher.
Claude Pope, former chairman of the N.C. GOP, said Thursday that he had not seen Barber in a while, but remembered having a pleasant one-on-one conversation with him. They talked about Barber’s father, an educator who brought his family to Eastern North Carolina during the civil rights movement.
Pope said he did not think it was surprising that people on the opposite side of the political spectrum from Barber found him grating, though.
“If he’s talking about concepts that you don’t agree with, that’s not that unusual,” Pope said. And he questioned Barber’s effectiveness.
“If he’s moving on the national scene, my gut is that he’s attracted enough attention to himself to make people think he’s effective,” Pope said. “He has a message they want to hear. But if you go by election results, I’m not sure how effective he’s been.”
Irving Joyner, a Durham lawyer and N.C. Central University law professor, disagrees with Pope and counts the successes of Democrats Roy Cooper as governor, Josh Stein as state attorney general and Mike Morgan, an African-American judge elected to the state Supreme Court, as evidence to the contrary.
Joyner, who has known Barber since he was a youngster traveling through North Carolina with his father and as a student at N.C. Central University, says the state NAACP was transformed over the past decade.
“There’s no way that Barber can be replaced in terms of his charisma, his energy, his contacts,” Joyner said. The state organization has four vice presidents and one of them will likely step into the role until October, when the next NAACP elections will take place.
Joyner said Barber took over the state NAACP in 2005 at the right time for his goal of creating an organization that tried to pull together lots of groups to work toward a common goal. Barber early on was championing voting rights and the need to expand opportunities for more people to cast ballots. By 2008, when Barack Obama was seeking his first term as president, Joyner said, measures were in place so more North Carolinians could cast ballots.
Five years later, Barber was vocal about the legislative efforts to require voter ID at the polls and to roll back some of the statewide measures that had made it easier to vote. Barber was there to lead voters challenging the law in lawsuits in state and federal courts.
Robin Hayes, chairman of the state GOP, said Barber’s messages are important to the state.
“The issues he has brought to the table are extremely important and ones we need to be keenly and constantly aware of,” Hayes said. “That said, I think style makes a difference. I think it would have helped him and his causes had he been more of a negotiator than an agitator.”
The Rev. Nancy Petty, pastor of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, has marched alongside Barber and taken the stage with him at numerous rallies, admiring his ability to extend a message that resonates.
“This place we’re in as a state and a nation is just so confusing to people,” Petty said. “There’s this thing that Rev. Barber has the ability to do that is just unmatched by any other civics leader or religious leader that I’ve seen in my lifetime – and that is to make sense of what’s going on. Really once in a lifetime you find people who can do that as effectively as he does it. It’s pretty rare. It’s a gift.”
Barber addressed the Democratic National Convention in July, telling listeners in his characteristic fire-and-brimstone preaching style that the country’s democracy was at stake in the November elections.
Barber, who often repeats that a movement cannot be measured by one election, says he has no interest in being a politician.
“I’m a pastor at heart,” Barber said Thursday. “But I believe we need to have pastors in the public square.”
Barber cites the Bible on issues such as helping the poor as a guide for his work and his next steps.
“This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness a deep moral analysis that is rooted in an agenda to combat systemic poverty and racism, war mongering, economic injustice, voter suppression, and other attacks on the most vulnerable,” Barber said in a statement released Thursday. “While I am stepping down as president, I will continue working to advance the moral movement here at home as well as support the leadership in our conference to move North Carolina forward together.”
Barber said he will speak more about the Poor People’s Campaign at a press conference Monday.
“I’ve been in deep conversations of prayer with other leaders around the country,” Barber said. “We look at the national narrative we have when we go through these national elections – and we’re not talking about just one election or one party – but there have been no real discussions about the poor.”
Those conversations, Barber said, should include voting rights, health care proposals, systemic racism and more.
“We have a moral defect when we talk about spending more money on a bloated military than we do on public education,” he said.