Rev Barber leads a moral crusade for justice in the US

Written By: Jeffrey Bortz
Boone, NC, United States Published: Nov 01, 2017, 06.56 AM(IST)

William Barber at Moral Monday's rally. Photograph:( Others )

Political turmoil roils across the United States as the ultra-right ascends to power, symbolised by Donald Trump. The most dynamic and innovative opposition to the ultra-right has been led by the Reverend William J. Barber II, longtime pastor of the Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina.

The ultra-right began its ascent in North Carolina when the Republicans took control of the State Legislature in 2011. They then redistricted the state in such a way as to guarantee them a legislative majority regardless of the votes, so that the next year, 2012, they won 9 of the 13 seats up for reelection even though Democrats won 51 per cent of the votes.

That strategy gave them control of both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, which allowed them to implement a radical right-wing agenda: cut taxes on the rich, raising taxes on the middle class, and cutting social programs.

Author Jeffrey Bortz with Reverend William J. Barber (Others)

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To make the rich richer, they eliminated the state’s three-tier progressive income tax, substituting instead a flat-tax in which the poor pay the same rate as the state’s wealthiest citizens. Furthermore, they eliminated the estate tax, which applied only to the wealthy. To pay for the tax cuts, they blocked Medic-aid expansion, leaving 500,000 North Carolinians without health care.

They cut unemployment benefits, which were already meagre, to begin with, and slashed spending on public education, including the university system. They also eliminated many environmental protections. Then to prevent being thrown out of the office, they implemented voter suppression, reducing the number of early voting days, eliminating same-day voter registration and requiring an ID to vote, measures designed to reduce the electoral participation of students, the poor, and minorities, particularly African Americans.

Rev Barber believed that the Republican legislature was dragging North Carolina down an immoral path, and so he launched a moral crusade.
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Barber, President of North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 2005, was outraged at the assault on the poor, on African Americans, on the middle class, and particularly at the restrictions to democracy. Measured against the many Biblical injunctions to help the poor and the powerless - James 2:15-16, "Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, "God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!" – if you don’t give them the necessities of life?”

He believed that the Republican legislature was dragging North Carolina down an immoral path, and so he launched a moral crusade. On Monday, April 29, 2013, he led a protest at the State Legislature, which continued the following Mondays. It was his insight that protesters, to be effective, had to be willing to confront immoral laws with a moral challenge to the law, so that they occupied the Legislative building, where they were arrested, including the Rev Barber.

By the end of the summer, more than 900 Moral Mondayers had been arrested, the Rev Barber repeatedly. As Barber said, "Some issues are not about left and right, Republican and Democrat – they’re about our deepest moral values". Following through summer after summer, the 2017 Moral Monday gathering at the State Capitol assembled 80,000 protesters.

The state cutbacks to the university budget were hurting students, faculty, university employees, and the quality of public education.
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Teaching at Appalachian State University in the mountainous far northwestern corner of North Carolina, I was well aware of how state cutbacks to the university budget were hurting students, faculty, university employees, and the quality of public education, so when I heard of the Moral Monday protests in the summer of 2013, I was intrigued. With some friends, we trekked the 200 miles from Boone, NC, to Raleigh, the state capital, where we participated in that Monday’s protest.

As usual, before the occupation of the legislative building, Barber gave a speech to the assembled crowd, and as I listened, I realised that he is really quite brilliant, as well as courageous and passionate. We were more than impressed.

So the five of us - Greg, Sheila, Nancy and Tim - decided to bring Barber to campus to talk to the university community, an invitation he graciously accepted. He came In October and presented a spellbinding moral criticism of the Legislature, along with a moral vision for a better North Carolina.

I had an opportunity to have dinner with him during the visit and I was just as impressed by him as a person as well as I was by his leadership. Highly educated and intelligent, he was authentic, unassuming, natural, and down-to-earth, and with a keen sense of humour.

Rev Barber resigned his post as President of the North Carolina NAACP and has founded the Poor People’s Campaign, following Martin Luther King’s.
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This is a man truly committed to his mission to elevate the poor. His talk was a great success, so we had him back to campus three years later, along with a Republican speaker, so that students could compare both visions of society. Once again, Barber gave an awesome presentation. This year the U.S. Supreme Court gave Barber a major victory, ratifying lower court decisions that ruled that the Republican Legislature had racially gerrymandered voting districts in such a way as to deprive African Americans of fair and Constitutional representation, the original source of his Moral Monday protests. The courts ordered new redistricting.

This year, Barber has decided to take his moral message to the rest of the country. He resigned his post as President of the North Carolina NAACP and has founded the Poor People’s Campaign, following Martin Luther King’s last major initiative just before his assassination in April 1968. That year, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, itself an organisation that grew out of the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott against racial segregation, planned a campaign to address economic injustice and to assemble "a multiracial army of the poor," though King was murdered before it could take effect.

The goal is to establish chapters around the country who will engage in civil disobedience, as in Moral Monday, in order to bring about a "moral revival across the United States".
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Today Barber co-chairs the new organisation with the Rev Dr Liz Theoharis, a pastor from New York City. Their goal is to establish chapters around the country who will engage in civil disobedience, as in Moral Monday, in order to bring about a "moral revival across the United States". Barber and Theoharis have already been to the Rio Grande in El Paso to share their goals with the undocumented families of the Texas-Mexico borderlands.

As in North Carolina, Barber is committed to bringing justice to those whom American society has left behind, to stand and march with them until America shares its wealth with the poor and the outcasts, much as Jesus shared his message of hope with the poor and outcasts of his time. That is the moral renewal that Barber sought and seeks.
 

Jeffrey Bortz

The writer is professor of history at the Appalachian State University. He was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on Mexican history.
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