J. Peder Zane

Zane: Morality, clarity, truth: The world through William Barber’s eyes

The Rev. William Barber at the HKonJ March in Raleigh in 2014.
The Rev. William Barber at the HKonJ March in Raleigh in 2014. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Among the threats to American democracy, none is more insidious than our nation’s evaporating interest in reading. Along with meaningful conversation, which also seems to be in decline, good books are one of the best tools we have to learn about and empathize with different people and cultures.

This is why I was so eager to read the Rev. Dr. William Barber’s insightful new memoir, “The Third Reconstruction,” written with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. As the leader of the Moral Monday protests against the “wicked” and “corrupt” GOP legislature, the fiery pastor and NAACP leader has become one of North Carolina’s most famous and divisive citizens. While news accounts cover his words and deeds, Barber remains a flashpoint rather than flesh and blood human being for many Tar Heels – a sticky figure we agree or disagree with without understanding what makes him tick.

“The Third Revolution” fills in this gap, providing a compelling account of the cultural, spiritual and intellectual experiences that have shaped him.

Even Barber’s fiercest opponents should find much to admire in his life story. He was born in 1963 into a learned and courageous family committed to challenging Jim Crow when that meant risking one’s life. His father, a preacher and educator with two master’s degrees, could have enjoyed comfort and prestige as “a big-church preacher,” Barber writes, but “he was not committed to professional advancement. He was devoted, instead, to the freedom of all people”

At the urging of a fellow educator, he moved from Indianapolis to the rural town of Plymouth in Eastern North Carolina to test whether the schools would follow the law and hire black teachers. Barber does not dwell on the experience, but it could not have been easy for him to integrate his elementary school.

Just as farmers teach their children how to work the land, Barber’s family imbued him with faith and activism. “I grew up in community meetings,” he recounts. “When you’ve devoted your entire life to those people – when, in fact, you are those people – then the freedom movement is not a matter of history or social theory. It is a matter of life and death.”

Reared amid heart-breaking hardships and undeniable prejudices faced by African-Americans – and acutely aware of the roots of this oppression through his formal education at N.C. Central University and Duke Divinity School – Barber sees America through the narrow yet true to his experience lens of oppression and struggle.

As a result, this deeply spiritual man – who says he has been visited by an angel and relies on prayer, signs and wonders to make life decisions – understands religion in political terms. “Jesus’s language was justice language – good news for the poor, freedom for prisoners, healing for the sick and oppressed,” he writes.

It is to Barber’s great credit that even though he “learned firsthand to fear white anger and the violence of white mobs,” he was able to transcend these experiences and see the quest for freedom in wider terms. Unlike, for example, the Black Lives Matter movement, Barber has assembled a “fusion coalition” that has found common ground among many activists, including the LGBT community, “undocumented” immigrants, environmentalists and African-Americans.

His broad-minded inclusiveness, however, ends with his own ideology. For Barber, race, power and oppression – slavery, genocide and exploitation – are not just the central themes of American history but the only ones. To Barber’s mind, the arc of the moral universe in America is unbending. “Fusion politics was as threatening to the white power structure in 2008 as it had been in 1868 – the year the KKK was founded,” he writes.

Barber sees only one side of any issue – his own, which he protects from any scrutiny by proclaiming it to be the only moral stance. “When we stand for what is good and right,” he proclaims, “evil will employ every power at its disposal”

Instead of exploring whether Art Pope or the GOP legislature might have different ideas about how to serve the common good, he dismisses them as greedy racists. Rather than consider the competing claims that lead some North Carolinians to oppose his views, he casts them as mindless puppets misled by dark money.

For Barber, his own “moral analysis” always provides the “clarity” that leads him to the single “truth” about any issue.

Especially in politics, almost everything is more complicated than that.

Still, I am thankful for “The Third Reconstruction,” which allowed me to see the world through Barber’s eyes even if I still don’t share his vision.

Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane@jpederzane.com.