Since the Republican presidential front-runner announced after the San Bernardino shootings that he would close America’s borders to Muslims, a debate has ensued about what “radicalization” means and how far we as a nation are willing to go to protect ourselves from it.
Yet when we look closely at the acts of terror that rend our communities and make everyone feel less safe, the common denominator is not a particular religion or culture. It is instead a violence perpetuated by those who use fear to gain political power. We cannot combat this violence by naming an enemy to eliminate. Instead, we must illuminate the sort of friendships that make fusion politics possible.
When we met nearly 20 years ago, we were the most unlikely of partners. Rev. Barber, an African-American pastor with deep roots in the civil rights community, was serving as chair of the Human Relations Commission for Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt. Jonathan, a Southern Baptist from Stokes County, had just finished an internship with Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, one-time Dixiecrat candidate for president.
Ideology and established enemy lines all but guaranteed we’d never work together. But we got to know each other’s love for people and for this state. We learned that we shared a common faith and, with it, a concern for the common good.
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A Southern Strategy was developed in the late 1960s to pit us against each other, creating a “solid South” for the Republican Party by dividing poor and working people according to their worst fears about their neighbors. Black and white have a long history in this place, but political strategists worked carefully to “color” immigrants, members of the LQBTQ community and religious minorities, casting them as un-American rather than nonwhite. The rise of ISIS as a real and credible threat means that this racist form of political manipulation can take the form of calling Muslims un-American.
But we must not allow the candidates of either party to condemn the murders in San Bernardino without acknowledging their own role in this nation’s violence. After her husband was gunned down in 1968 for challenging our violent culture, Coretta Scott King boldly said, “In this society violence against poor people and minority groups is routine. I remind you that starving a child is violence; suppressing a culture is violence; neglecting schoolchildren is violence; discrimination against a working man is violence; ghetto house is violence; ignoring medical needs is violence; contempt for equality is violence; even a lack of will power to help humanity is a sick and sinister form of violence.”
Our friendship has helped us see through the divide-and-conquer tactics of this violent politics. When Samuel Ashley and J.W. Hood – a white minister and a black minister – came together after the Civil War to help rewrite our state’s constitution, they noted that “beneficent provision for the poor is the first duty” of state government. Like those two men, black Republicans and poor white Populists throughout this state saw their common cause in the 1890s and together formed a Fusion Party that won every statewide election in 1896. The white supremacy campaign of 1898 that led to a coup in Wilmington and ushered in the Jim Crow era was a violent reaction against the power of fusion friendships.
Again in the mid-20th century, black and white came together in North Carolina, giving rise to the modern civil rights movement. After the legal victories of desegregation, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, the Southern Strategy of intentional division was implemented as a calculated reaction against the power of fusion friendship in the public square.
We have witnessed the power of friendships like ours in the Moral Movement that arose in North Carolina in 2005. Our coalition partners demonstrated their power in the 2008 presidential election when North Carolina’s electoral college votes went to a Democrat, breaking the solid South. This victory led to yet another violent backlash of mystery money, gerrymandering and the extreme makeover of our state government in the 2013 legislative session. “Moral Mondays” became the largest state-based civil disobedience campaign in U.S. history because fusion friendships like ours refused to give in to extremists’ assault.
What, then, can we do to make our community safe again and prevent the “radicalization” of extreme elements in our society? The rhetoric of fear, we know, cannot save us. To say “radical Islam” when we never say “radical Christian” is to play the race card again in the 21st century. As in our past, fusion friendships offer a way forward.
The Rev. William Barber is chief architect of the Moral Movement and president of Repairers of the Breach. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove directs the School for Conversion in Durham . Their book “The Third Reconstruction” will be published in January.