The Rev. William J. Barber II urged a largely African-American crowd in Raleigh on Saturday to vote in this fall’s elections in a fiery speech that waded into the contentious national debate over Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Barber opened the conference amid applause for recently being named one of the winners of the MacArthur Fellowship’s 2018 “Genius Grant,” but critics are focusing on how he said Republicans “raped” the process of confirming Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Barber, the pastor of Goldsboro’s Greenleaf Christian Church and the former longtime head of the North Carolina NAACP, told attendees of Shaw University’s “Awakening: When We All Rise” conference that “if we ever needed to vote, we sure do need to vote now.”
In a 50-minute speech, Barber told the audience that if they support things such as a higher minimum wage, immigrant rights, expanded health care options and an end to “voter suppression laws” then as “the sons and daughters of slaves, we better the hell show up and vote.”
“We’ve been through too much,” Barber said at Shaw, one of the nation’s oldest historically black colleges and universities. “We’ve seen too much. We’ve fought too much and if we ever needed to vote, we need to first understand where we are in time.
“There are certain moments in time that you just have to say, ‘I’m not going back.’”
But the North Carolina Republican Party is taking exception to Barber’s use of the terms “raped” and “raping” in describing Kavanaugh’s confirmation process in the U.S. Senate. The confirmation divided the country after Christine Blasey Ford, a California college professor and UNC-Chapel Hill graduate, accused Kavanaugh of having sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers in the 1980s.
Kavanaugh has denied the allegations.
Barber said that Republicans had been “raping the system” even before the confirmation hearing began. He later brought up rape when he told the crowd that Republican senators had wanted to avoid talking about Kavanaugh’s judicial record of “supporting corporations over people.”
“They wanted to have an emotional fight because they wanted to cover up,” Barber said. “The whole process had been raped before we got to Dr. Ford because they changed the rules and went to 50+1 to appoint a Supreme Court justice rather than 60, which had been the standard.”
Barber was referring to the number of votes in the Senate required for confirmation, and a change that Republicans made before confirming Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, as McClatchy and others reported. Previously, Democrats had made a similar change for nominees to lower-level courts and the executive branch.
Sarah Reidy-Jones, vice chairwoman of the Mecklenburg County Republican Party, said Saturday that as a rape survivor she found Barber’s comment reprehensible and offensive. She said Barber’s comments make a mockery of real rape survivors.
“There he goes again firing to his troops,” Reidy-Jones said. “It’s time for men to stop talking about these things in such a trivial manner.”
Barber defended his rape comments against Republican criticism, saying in a phone interview early Saturday evening that the use of the term rape “is not always just about sex, it’s about abuse of power.”
Barber said the Senate abused its power in multiple ways to help Kavanaugh, including how it quickly “jammed” his confirmation through.
“The problem is when you change the political systems that have served the nation hundreds of years just because you have a moment of power,” Barber said.
Barber, who led the “Moral Monday” protests at the GOP-controlled General Assembly, was fresh off being named to the MacArthur Fellows, which comes with a no-strings-attached grant of $625,000 paid over five years.
Barber drew repeated applause in a speech in which he called President Donald Trump the “narcissistic racist in the White House.”
Barber also took aim at North Carolina legislators, saying that while they’re giving disaster relief to victims of Hurricane Florence they’re not expanding Medicaid to provide the health care that people need.
“People are dying in this state not because God called them home but because of government policies,” Barber said.
But Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the N.C. Republican Party, said voters will have a choice on Election Day whether they support the policies of Barber and national Democrats. Barber is registered as an unaffiliated voter in North Carolina.
“Rev. Barber and these mobs up in Washington have done something that Republicans could never have done,” Woodhouse said. “They’ve made these elections not about Trump but about them and their behavior and the ramifications for the country if this kind of behavior is tolerated.”
Barber countered Saturday evening that Woodhouse had “picked up segregationist language” when he called the Kavanaugh protesters “mobs.” Barber said mob is the “same language” that Alabama Gov. George Wallace used to describe the civil rights marchers who marched in Selma in 1965.
Barber closed his speech saying it’s “time for some thunder at the ballot box.”
“Ninety-seven million people cannot stay home,” Barber said. “It’s time for thunder.
“Over 50 percent of black folk can not stay home. It’s time for thunder. All we need is 12 percent higher than the last midterm election to see a change in the statehouse and in Congress.”
But Woodhouse predicted Trump and the GOP will do well with African-American voters, citing this week’s White House visit by musician Kanye West and retired football player Jim Brown.
Paulette Dillard, president of Shaw University, said the purpose of the conference was to have speakers share their interpretation of the theme of how to reawaken civic engagement in the African American community. She said that the event wasn’t about a political agenda.
“We make no specific statement about the sensitivity or insensitivity of it,” Dillard said of Barber’s rape comment. “It’s just that that’s what he said. Now there was no rousing applause.
“There was no anything else in the event that specifically highlighted that that’s what the event was about. It was just a statement that was made by a speaker.”
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who was the pastor to former President Barack Obama, was also supposed to speak Saturday. But Dillard said Wright had been hospitalized Friday and that his condition is unknown.