The Rev. William Barber II is recounting a story most of us have heard about a million times, recasting it in modern terms: A woman in her third trimester walks almost cross-country and gives birth with no health care. Don't recognize the tale? Hint: The woman's name was Mary.
It's no surprise Barber, who heads the state branch of the NAACP, connects the Nativity story to modern-day North Carolina. A large man with a resonant voice who uses a cane, the reverend doesn't shy from invoking biblical imagery in his fight against legislation that harms the poor.
"Christmas isn't about lights, it's about injustice and justice," Barber says. "And where does God show up? Among the poor."
For the past eight months, Barber has spearheaded Moral Mondays, the massive, organized, ongoing civil disobedience campaign aims to further labor, voting, education and health-care rights for "the least of these."
Barber deliberately uses moral language to discuss policy issues — it's a way to cut through the double-talk, move away from partisanship and see the clear effects of policy, in human terms. "How can our adversaries say, 'I just denied thousands of people health care [via Obama's Medicaid expansion],' and defend that as moral? They can't. These decisions are life-and-death."
By framing the discussion outside of knee-jerk labels like "liberal" or "conservative," Barber has also been able to unite an astonishing swath of progressives. More than 150 organizations have participated in Moral Mondays, with interests ranging from African-American fraternal orders to immigrant rights groups to environmental and labor activists. Close to 1,000 people have been arrested for the cause at the state legislative building. Organizations from a dozen states, including Alabama, Georgia and Illinois, visited N.C. NAACP offices in December to determine ways to replicate the movement's success, which hardly came overnight.
Back in 2005, Barber was tapped to head the North Carolina NAACP. He activated its dormant standing committees — including the labor and industry committee, which re-energized the organization's base — but realized he needed to build a wider coalition. "I took a look at the people fighting," Barber says, "and we were in silos. Black rights or gay rights or women's rights — yet it was the same opponents against us every time. So we worked on a transformative, non-transaction-based agenda and built up trust and relationships."
Together with input from dozens of organizations, Barber developed a 14-point agenda that spurred the formation of Historic Thousands on Jones Street, which organizes for civil rights and holds massive anti-poverty rallies each February at the state capitol.
"We've had an agenda since 2006, under a Democratic governor," says Curtis Gatewood, HKonJ's coalition coordinator. "So our organization has integrity; it's moral, not partisan." Close to 17,000 people attended the HKonJ march in 2013, and the group anticipates more for the Feb. 8, 2014 event.
Moral Mondays grew out of HKonJ's partnerships, as did the Forward Together Moral Movement, an umbrella organization that pushes litigation, voter registration and mobilizing. As a result, Moral Mondays attracts a diverse base that has medical doctors protesting alongside the uninsured, Muslims with atheists and laborers with students.
Barber calls this "fusion politics," a strategy the NAACP knows well. The organization was founded in 1909 by blacks and whites who understood discrimination as a problem for not just one group, but for all of America. Just as surely as it thwarts the ambitions and contributions of its victims, it twists the character and reasoning of its beneficiaries.
The reverend, a history buff, studies Reconstruction periods and ways they succeeded or missed their goals. For a brief moment immediately following the Civil War victory, the ballot box was not restricted from African Americans. During this time, North Carolina progressives were able to unite across racial lines to pass ground-breaking legislation that benefitted everyone, such as open access to public education, which was penned into the state constitution by J.W. Hood, a freedman. Then the tide turned, and so-called Redemptionists violently seized power and instituted Jim Crow laws across the South.
Looking at demographics — according to the U.S. census website, last year North Carolina was 22 percent African American, with one of the nation's fastest-growing Latino populations — Barber believes the nation is on the cusp of a third Reconstruction, and is unsurprised by the harmful policies emanating from the Republican supermajority in the state house. In fact, he expects them.
"The writing is on the wall," Barber says.
Barber grew up in a social justice-minded family, son of a minister and a school administrator. In the 1970s, his parents left a comfortable middle-class life in Indianapolis to return to eastern Carolina, which still has some of the state's worst poverty rates, to enroll their son in a segregated school near his father's hometown.
At 17, Barber was elected the first overall student body president of his high school, bucking a post-integration tradition of Southern schools of instating separate representatives for the black and white students. Barber's victory destroyed the reasoning that black students wouldn't have a chance in a general election with a predominantly white student body. He also became state NAACP youth council president, immersing himself in the organization that would later become an integral part of his life.
Originally, the college-bound Barber resisted the tug of ministry. Perhaps it was the weight of expectations; he'd inherited 300 years of ministry on his father's side of the family and 400 years on his mother's side. He wanted to attend law school, and chose North Carolina Central University for undergraduate studies precisely because they did not have a seminary program.
While in school, he worked on Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign, and he graduated cum laude with a bachelor of arts in public administration. But something kept pulling him back to the church. Eventually, he gave in, earning a master of divinity degree from Duke and a doctoral degree from Drew University in Madison, N.J.
A typical day for Barber begins around 5 a.m., when he spends an hour in focused prayer, before exercising to alleviate symptoms of a rare but aggressive form of arthritis. At 7, he begins responding to emails, making calls and coordinating with coalition partners, and by 9 he's on the road, criss-crossing the state from Goldsboro to Raleigh for meetings, protests and workshops. At night, he unwinds with a good cartoon — "Bugs Bunny; I'm old-school" — and the news sites. Sometimes he also reads his critics, whose comments on blogs and traditional media outlets can get quite nasty: "extortionist," "fat piece of blubber" and "race-hustler" are a few of the nicer things he's been called. Not great for the ego, but it's a reminder to keep his language above the fray. "I don't ever want to become what I fight," he says.
A recent skirmish occurred Dec. 2 in front of the state administration building, when Barber clashed with state budget director Art Pope. When Pope isn't bankrolling Tea Party candidates and gutting social safety nets, he runs the discount chain Roses — which, according to its parent company's website — are located only in neighborhoods with at least a 25 percent African-American population and median household income below $40,000.
"Do you want to close down my stores so that we don't provide services in the community so that I've got to lay off my employees?" Pope asked, as news cameras rolled. "The policies that you're supporting, sir, are hurting the very people who spend there," Barber replied.
He has since begun a series of "informational pickets" outside of Roses stores across the state. "[Pope] has the right to spend his money the way he wants, and we have the right to tell it," Barber says.
In mid-December Barber said his next big move was a Moral Monday Service of Redemption, on Dec. 23, in which he'd call on Gov. Pat McCrory to convene a special session of the legislature to rescind the laws denying Medicaid expansion to half a million North Carolinians and cutting unemployment benefits to 170,000. A petition of 3,000 signatures asking the governor to do so has been submitted, so if McCrory agrees then the service will be a celebration, Barber says. If not, the service will become a "redemptive witnessing" session, where lawmakers will see and hear directly from constituents their policies hurt.
Most leaders might balk at holding a major protest two days before Christmas, but Barber is confident in his convictions. "We won't allow 170,000 people to be crucified without a witness. We'll make sure the star of justice shows up in North Carolina."