Not all leaders of big causes are what they appear to be to their large audiences. Probably the most infamous example of that was Lonesome Rhodes, the hillbilly raconteur in the 1957 film,“A Face in the Crowd,” starring North Carolina’s Andy Griffith. Rhodes’ homespun tales charmed his eventually massive audience until the phony believed himself capable of picking a president. But he demeaned that audience on TV, laughing at them, calling them names, in a moment when he thought he was off the air. Unfortunately for him, the control room had been taken over by a woman Rhodes had treated very badly.
In the final sequence of the movie, Rhodes got in the elevator of New York skyscraper on his way to a self-aggrandizing political soiree, only to have his career over by the time the elevator came to rest in the lobby.
In the course of interviewing many a celebrity, major and minor, I’ve had some disappoint me and some be surprisingly uplifting. (One of the most uplifting, by the way, was Andy Griffith.)
So a few years ago, when the Rev. William Barber came to the offices of The News & Observer for a small meeting, I wondered what the sometimes bombastic preacher, the head of the state NAACP (he’s departing that post for another), the organizer of the Moral Monday demonstrations, would be like. He was given to eloquence, but he had a multitude of critics.
In an hour, I found the reverend to be thoughtful, candid about his personal struggles with health issues, and a clear thinker who wouldn’t be diverted, even in a small setting, from his cause of racial and economic justice. Unlike some who appear on the big stages, he was just as effective on this smaller one.
It called to mind a story my father told me once (and I’ve mentioned previously in this space) about sitting with Martin Luther King, another man famed for his public image, on an airplane going from Los Angeles to Atlanta. He found King to be gracious, interested in others, kind, gentle and funny.
Barber made himself famous with powerful, no-holds-barred rhetoric blasting the members of the North Carolina General Assembly (Republicans, mainly) for everything from refusing Medicaid expansion to Voter ID and suppression laws to cutting unemployment benefits. The Republicans saw him as an annoyance, but little more, until Barber organized and led the “Moral Monday” demonstrations in the Legislative Building. That was in 2013, and Republicans were so feeling their power that they put down the demonstrations and the people in them.
But Barber was on to something, and gradually the demonstrations got bigger and bigger and the arrests increased and included doctors in their lab coats and professionals from all walks of life, as they say. William Barber had tapped into a vein of discontent that Republicans had underestimated as they made the mistake of assuming that their political good fortune had conveyed on them a crown of invincibility. It hadn’t.
Even those who agreed with Barber in principle but started out a little skeptical came to the one conclusion on which all – even some on the other side – agreed: Barber may be bombastic, but while Democrats complained and special interests on the left raised trouble periodically, Barber had gotten something done. He’d gotten people to leave home and come downtown, and a good many of them felt strongly enough about the Republicans’ performance on Jones Street to get arrested for the first time in their lives.
That’s no mean feat, to motivate people to make that kind of sacrifice. And most of the attention Barber directed at the General Assembly was not the kind of attention the Republicans wanted.
Now, Barber is moving on to lead a new Poor People’s Campaign. The first group was headed by Martin Luther King, and Barber, a minister in Eastern North Carolina, will seek to stir new interest in such a group. It will be a challenge. But William Barber has a history of getting something done, against all odds and in spite of all doubts.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@ newsobserver.com