This Is How They Gutted North Carolina and This Is the Man Who Might Save It
In 2013, the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina caught the nation by surprise, with an escalating series of mass demonstrations and mass arrests in protest against an extreme right-wing legislative agenda.
Although Republicans had made sweeping gains across dozens of states in 2010, and further consolidated power through redistricting after that, North Carolina was unique in both the quality and the strength of the resistance movement that emerged there. That fact alone signaled the existence of a profoundly important story that needed to be told: What made North Carolina different? What made the people there respond in a unified, caring, coherent manner that many outsiders immediately recognized as embodying key elements of the civil rights movement in a way that is often invoked in words, but too seldom in deeds?
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, leader of the North Carolina NAACP, tells that story, as an unfolding of his own personal story, informed by faith, community and history, in his new memoir, “The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement.” Salon interviewed him about the book and the story it tells just two weeks before the North Carolina primary again draws national attention to the state.
Nationally, most people never heard of you before the Moral Mondays movement burst onto the scene in 2013, and it was seen as something similar to the 2011 response to Scott Walker in Wisconsin, as a spontaneous outpouring of resistance (though of course the strength of Wisconsin’s labor movement was well known).
But the actual story is dramatically different. In a very real sense, you were actually the initiators, with a coalition formed in 2006/7, drawing inspiration and guidance from the history of the First and Second Reconstructions, specifically in North Carolina history. This helps explain the title of your book, “The Third Reconstruction,” but most people don’t share a common understanding of what the first two Reconstructions were about.
So could you start by explaining, first, what people need to know about the First Reconstruction, what it accomplished in North Carolina — what it showed to be possible — and the role of “fusion politics.”And, second, how it was crushed, and the lessons to be learned from that.
Thank you for noticing that we’re looking forward by looking back. Eric Foner, one of our best historians, says that we cannot understand Reconstruction without understanding the Redemption movement that rose up against it. But it’s essential to know that, right here in my home state of North Carolina, a white minister and a black minister worked together in 1868 to write the Constitution whose moral language has guided our 21st-century movement. Their language scared extremists then as much as it does now. Which is why a white supremacy campaign in the 19th century promised to “redeem” North Carolina from Negro rule, and extremists today talk about “taking back” America.
So, yes, the patterns repeat themselves. And in some ways they’ve taught us to see what’s coming. The Redemption movement fought back by attacking public education, voting rights and equal protection under the law. They attacked the role of government itself, insisting that white people could not pay into a system they had trusted if black people had power. Our coalition built power as they did in the late 19th century—by helping people who are often pitted against each other see that we are stronger together. But we scared the extremists to death when North Carolina helped send Obama to the White House in 2008. We broke the solid South for the first time in a generation. We knew, as before, that they would attack us by any means necessary. And they have. But the amount of money they’ve had to pour into the resistance is evidence to us of our success.
The Second Reconstruction is remembered primarily in terms of great historical moments of achievement, but you have a much different view–one that’s actually much more in keeping with those who forged it. What are the most important lessons we need to draw from the Second Reconstruction?
When we remember the Second Reconstruction as a “civil rights movement,” we reduce it to the legal victory of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But we’d already had a civil rights act in 1866—almost a century earlier. In so many ways, the struggle for civil rights was a fight to gain ground we’d lost in the Jim Crow era.
What Ella Baker understood and Dr. King articulated after 1964 was that a movement mentality can push us toward a moral revolution of values. And such a revolution is essential if we are to reconstruct democracy in this country. Dr. King said he feared that black people had been integrated into a house that was burning down. Reconstruction is about becoming the country we’ve not yet been, and that is the essential work of our Moral Movement today.
Although you’re writing the story of a movement, it’s grounded in very personal terms. The two most important people you cite influencing your life are your father and your grandmama. If you were asked to choose one thing you learned from each, what would that be?
My father taught me the importance of scholarship, theology and movement building. He was a well-educated man and could have used his degrees to live comfortably in a city. But he brought them back to Washington County and used that knowledge to serve the community. My grandmama taught me the substance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen. She was a woman of deep faith, and she gave me the gift of knowing in my bones that if we are on God’s side, even when we don’t know how, God is going to work it out.
Although almost all of your story takes place in North Carolina, what you describe as your “first fight” took place while you were a preacher in Virginia for three years. I’d like to ask four questions: What was that fight? How did you get drawn into it? What happened? And what did you learn?
A member of my church had worked her whole life for the local textile mill. When she retired, they gave her $90 and a watch. Then she died six months later. The workers at the plant wanted to start a union and they asked me to help. Seeing their struggle as a moral concern, I agreed. But I didn’t realize how savvy the bosses were at dividing the community. They held separate meetings with the white ministers and the black ministers. When the company president met with the black minsters, he reminded us of all he’d done for our churches over the years. Then he got up to leave. I said, “Wait a second; I thought we were here to talk about a union.” He said, “We just did.”
I learned from experience what my father had tried to tell me—that you can never stand alone in a moral struggle. We have to lock arms, refuse to be divided, and move forward together.
After you returned to North Carolina, you began working in a state-wide capacity, but ended up working in a small community. It might not have made much sense to an outside observer, but there a compelling reason behind it, which only became fully clear over time. What led you to that choice, and how was it ultimately confirmed?
To tell you the truth, it didn’t make sense to me. I told the church that I had a good job. I was working for the governor and could preach on the weekends. I didn’t want to pastor. But they kept asking. Then I ended up in the hospital for three months and was told I’d never walk again. I thought my work was finished. But this little church said, “No, we still want you.” I learned to stand and walk again while pastoring that church. And I’ve been there ever since. We’ve learned how the work of community building is never done alone. “We” is the most important word in the justice vocabulary.
You write about your development of a theological perspective guiding your political engagement. This includes the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, but it also critiques and goes beyond him, incorporating the insights of Stanley Hauerwas. Can you tell us a little bit about both their teachings, and how this related to your development as an activist?
My education was in public policy and administration; I studied to understand how government works. But my theological education developed my prophetic imagination. Yes, I engaged Niebuhr and Hauerwas. But my read of them was shaped deeply by my teacher Bill Turner and the prophetic black church tradition that my father and grandmama passed on to me. My thinking was sharpened by Fred Herzog and Paul Tillich, Mary McCleod Bethune and Cornel West. All of these influences helped me to acknowledge the insight of Niebuhr’s “Christian realism”—that we can never bet on good will alone. We must analyze power and think strategically in an “immoral society.” But Niebuhr didn’t know the God who can make a way out of no way. He couldn’t see how strategic thinking must give way and move when the Spirit says move. So I learned to appreciate his insight without succumbing to mere political realism.
Stanley Hauerwas articulated clearly how the community-building wisdom of the church is essential for identity formation and movement building. Nothing is more powerful than a rich and full community where people know their “somebodiness” in the context of beloved community. That’s what gave children in Birmingham the strength to march against dogs and fire hoses. But my prophetic heritage would never let me be content with simply “being church.” Authentic faith necessitates a quarrel with the world—and with the institutions that oppress people. It’s not enough to simply be an island of truth in a sea of lies. We must confront the lies in the public square and call institutions to repent.
After a number of years, you ran to become head of the North Carolina NAACP. But almost as soon as you took office, you began working in coalition with others in boundary-breaking ways, ultimately leading to North Carolina’s first Peoples’ Assembly in February 2007. Two questions: a) What was driving you in the process of bringing together this coalition? b) What was done at that assembly to build a foundation that would grow to include so many more groups over time?
What drove me from the beginning and keeps me going now is the knowledge that fusion coalitions are stronger than elite interests and corporate money. Fusion coalitions are the only thing that have ever reconstructed democracy in America. But they have done it, and it works.
What did we do in the beginning to lay a firm foundation? We made it clear that this was long-term—a movement, not a moment. We said we’d stick together until we won the full moral agenda, not just our group’s interest. And we focused on listening, making space for the work to transform us as we learned from one another. No one has ever stood alone on a stage at our public events. And we’ve always encouraged community-based people’s assemblies where people get to know one another across dividing lines. This is hard work, but it’s not complex. It can happen anywhere. Indeed, we’ve seen this model spread to a dozen other states in the past few years.
You write, “A reconstruction framework helps us to see we will not win by starting a third party. We will win by changing the conversation for every candidate and every party.” What does that mean, concretely?
It means we’re not asking which of the available candidates deserve our vote. Because the available candidates in both parties have made it to where they are by gauging what is possible in terms of political strategy. Instead, we’re demonstrating that another kind of politics is possible. And we’re trusting that, as this movement continues to build, it will create candidates who will embrace our moral agenda. This is the power of prophetic imagination: to speak into existence the possibility of something we’ve not yet seen, knowing that it can and must be because it is in keeping with our deepest religious and constitutional traditions.
Finally, what’s the most important question that I haven’t asked? And what’s the answer?
You haven’t asked what songs we sing. But the songs are as important as anything else. Ms. Yara Allen, our ethnomusicologist, has been the song leader of this movement. Like all freedom singers, she leads us in songs that have been part of the movement for years—sometimes generations. We sing, “I’ve Got a Feeling Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” when the police are arresting us, and “Guide My Feet,” as we march. But Yara and other song leaders also improvise the old songs, listening for the poetry of the moment and opening up space in our minds and hearts for new imagination. Once when it was raining, they started singing, “Forward together, not one step back / God’s gonna trouble the water.”