In the packed sanctuary of Davie Street Presbyterian Church, the Rev. William J. Barber II watched and listened as speaker after speaker took a few moments behind the pulpit to praise him, the state NAACP leader who had brought them all together.
Barber, 53, announced last week that he would be stepping down as the state NAACP president with five months left in his term to step up to a new challenge – the launch of a national Poor People’s Campaign.
Before sharing the details of that campaign, modeled on one that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was building before his assassination, those gathered at the downtown Raleigh church recounted highlights, challenges and accomplishments from the 12 years that Barber was at the helm of the state NAACP.
There was immediate cause for celebration.
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling less than an hour before the NAACP event began, announcing that the justices had no plans to take up North Carolina’s voter ID law. That meant a lower-court ruling that struck down the provision stayed in place and voters in North Carolina will not be required to show photo identification to cast ballots.
Loud applause broke out and a chant that has echoed in North Carolina since Barber founded the Moral Monday movement resounded among the pews.
“Forward together,” the crowd chanted with arms raised in the air. “Not one step back.”
Barber, a charismatic preacher with a booming voice and lilt that commands attention, has spoken out for more access to voting and opposed efforts to roll back laws that made it easier for North Carolinians to vote early, register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day and preregister as 16- and 17-year-olds.
Bob Hall, director of Democracy N.C., a voting rights advocate, said Barber impressed him early on with his enthusiasm for such causes and his insistence that any protests against what he perceived to be voter suppression efforts be fact-based. As a researcher, Hall said he admired that in Barber.
“He’s uplifting, but he’s grounded in reality,” Hall said.
As president of the state NAACP, Barber worked to build what he calls a “Fusion movement.” He focused early on trying to broaden the NAACP tent and bring in groups and organizations that had similar goals but had not always worked together.
During his term, state NAACP membership has swelled. In western North Carolina, five branches with memberships that are majority white have formed since the launch of the Moral Monday movement in 2013 that fought for health care expansion, broader support for public education, a higher minimum wage and more access to the ballot box.
Barber said last week and stressed again Monday that he will remain based in North Carolina. Although he won’t be the president of the state NAACP, there still will be Moral Monday rallies, even if they sometimes are on Tuesdays, as the one planned for May 23 at 6 p.m. at Bicentennial Mall near State Capitol.
The theme is “Health Care is a Human Right and a Moral Demand.”
Barber cast off assertions that it would be difficult for any successor to his presidency. One of the current vice presidents will fill the remainder of his term until elections in October.
Barber said his success came from the people around him who supported him.
“If we get a person,” Barber said, “it’s about how can we surround them. How can we lift them up.”
As Barber turns his focus to 23 states and the nation’s capital, he hopes to build a movement that continues the work he has done in North Carolina.
The most recent election troubled him.
“Our work is not over here in North Carolina,” Barber said. “But, as you know, extremism is at work in other states and has gained power in all three branches of our federal government, much as it did here four years ago. This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness a deep moral analysis that is rooted in an agenda to combat systemic racism, poverty, war mongering, economic injustice, voter suppression, and other attacks on the most vulnerable.”