As the Rev. William Barber II steps down this weekend as president of the N.C. NAACP, he says he doesn’t spend much time on the theological question of whether a person is born for a moment, or in a moment.
“I just know you have to serve in that moment,” he said.
Barber, 54, served in that moment, taking over the reins of a somewhat disjointed state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 2005, and staying in the volunteer position for 12 years.
During that time, he led a registration drive that put more than 400,000 new voters on the rolls. He re-energized the state organization, inspiring new offices to open even in the far reaches of the North Carolina mountains.
He built its numbers statewide, and then channeled the outrage of its members and supporters to create the “Moral Monday” movement, a series of protests against the state legislature’s actions, including the so-called bathroom bill; the country’s most restrictive voting law; and gerrymandered voting maps that helped concentrate power so blatantly that a court ordered them to be redrawn.
“I’m confident and clear: This state conference is better off than when we found it,” Barber said Thursday at the kickoff of this year’s conference in Raleigh. He delivered his final State of the State on Civil Rights address Saturday morning. N.J. Sen. Cory Booker delivered the keynote address Saturday afternoon.
Barber’s efforts have put him in the national spotlight, with a rousing primetime speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention introducing him to the rest of the country. National media outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post have profiled him and his efforts, with the Times writing, “To his admirers, Dr. Barber, a gifted preacher with a big-tent vision, is the strongest contender for (the Rev. Martin Luther) King’s mantle.”
But that national attention and his opinions on an array of hot-button issues have drawn opponents, with his critics saying Barber was sometimes more about making headlines than making things better. Last month, he told Gov. Roy Cooper he wouldn’t be invited to the conference because of how a murder case has been handled.
“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,” said Francis DeLuca, president of the Civitas Institute, a conservative public policy group based in Raleigh. “I have said to him that he should act more like a reverend and less like a partisan.”
Building a movement
Barber says the key in transforming the NAACP into a political force was not just to be an effective lobbying group, but to harness the moral strength of diverse groups that come together trying to do the right thing.
“I tell people, the last thing you want to do is be loud and wrong,” Barber said.
He and his supporters have been very loud.
In April 2013, Barber, who pastors the Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, launched the first Moral Monday event, taking a handful of people to Raleigh to protest the conservative policies of the legislature. Seventeen people were arrested during the event, but more came back the next week, and the next.
Through the summer, more than 1,000 people were arrested for refusing to leave or quiet down in government buildings, as they urged legislators to reconsider decisions to cut unemployment benefits and eduction funding, to refuse to expand Medicaid for poor people, to approve harsh anti-abortion laws, give tax breaks to corporations while increasing taxes on the poor, and approve a voter ID law that was widely regarded as the most egregious attempt voter suppression in the U.S. in modern history.
Barber himself was arrested during the protests after being told he was being too loud in the halls of the legislature, keeping people from doing their jobs.
DeLuca, with the Civitas Institute, struggled to think of an issue on which he and Barber might agree, but he said he respects Barber’s ability to organize people.
In the early years of Barber’s tenure with the NAACP, especially, DeLuca said, “Basically the NAACP was the Democratic Party when the Democratic Party was in shambles.”
Barber says that while the NC NAACP pushes for liberal policies often associated with the Democratic Party, it shouldn’t be seen as a Democrat organization and should hold members of both parties accountable.
“We don’t have any permanent friends. We don’t have any permanent enemies,” Barber said. “We have permanent issues.”
The Poor People’s Campaign
Barber built a reputation for being able to coalesce groups around those issues, when they might not otherwise have been able to find anything in common.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, in town for the NAACP conference, said Barber is an effective leader because he doesn’t limit his focus to race, concentrating instead on issues where he sees right and wrong. Jackson has been friends with Barber for three decades.
Barber understands “that when you are in the dark, everybody looks remarkably the same,” Jackson said.
Saturday, Barber received a standing ovation after his speech, in which he said his work with the Poor People’s Campaign already has allowed him to meet people from Alaska to the country’s inner cities.
He has said he will remain as pastor of his Goldsboro church and will stay on the national NAACP board. He has said he’ll continue to be based in North Carolina and can keep an eye on what’s happening at home.
But his next project will allow him to continue his work on a larger scale. The mission of the Poor People’s Campaign is to dispel the notion, Barber said, that poverty is all the fault of the poor, and to help find lasting solutions.
“There is work yet to be done,” he said.