For Martin Luther King Day, Religion Dispatches is hosting a conversation on Reconstruction 3.0–the call for a Third Reconstruction that Red Letter Christian Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II has issued in his new book The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement. RLC’s Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove worked closely with Rev. Barber to write the book. Today he shares the story of their friendship and what he’s learned about the role of white people in a black-led freedom movement.
In the fall of 2014, when Ferguson was burning, I got an anxious email from a man I’ve never met. He wanted to know how I could support the Black Lives Matter movement when its tactics were so clearly lawless. I tried my best to understand where he was coming from, knowing the fear that stirs in my own stomach when the world feels out of control.
After a few exchanges, my correspondent decided he could trust me with the source of his uneasiness: “I’m an evangelical pastor out here in Ferguson,” he said. “I don’t understand what’s going on, but I want to. My grandfather pastored a church in Selma, Alabama. When I asked him what he did after Bloody Sunday in 1965, he said he locked the church doors and hid in his office. I’m afraid of making the same mistake.”
When we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King, we often talk about how far we’ve come, celebrate the Dream we still long for, and sing “We Shall Overcome.” But I keep thinking about that pastor in Ferguson and his grandfather. The kind of prophetic conversion Dr. King called us to is scary. It demands nothing short of being born again.
As a Southern Baptist kid growing up in North Carolina, I was a young Republican who wanted to join the Moral Majority. I went to work in the US Senate and paged for Strom Thurmond. Rooming with a congressman’s son on Capitol Hill, I thought I was on my way to a career in conservative politics. But something wasn’t quite right. Like my brother in Ferguson, I was troubled. I couldn’t reconcile the realities of DC politics with the words of Jesus I’d memorized in church. I came home thinking there must be a better way.
A few months later, I attended an event in North Carolina hosted by the governor’s office. The keynote speaker for the evening was the chair of the Human Relations Commission, William J. Barber II. I didn’t know he was a preacher when he stepped to the podium. But by the time he sat down, a ballroom full of people were on their feet, clapping and shouting like a Pentecostal camp meeting. I was among them. Unsure what had happened to us, I knew I had to hear more from this man.
When I invited Reverend Barber to come preach at my home church in Stokes County, he graciously accepted. But he did not come alone. He told me he wouldn’t come to my hometown by himself because he knew its history. I was from Klan country and didn’t even know it.
As a native son of North Carolina, I count it one of the great gifts of my life that I was befriended and, in the very best sense of the word, pastored by the Reverend Barber. For him, coming together across the color line that Dr. King dramatized is no mere political theater. It has been the substance of his faith for the twenty years I’ve known him. It’s what drew me to him that night in a hotel ballroom and it’s what most impresses me about his life and vision still.
As media outlets from the New York Times to Fox News sent reporters to cover the story of Moral Mondays in 2013, Reverend Barber and I talked about problems with how this story was being told. The problem wasn’t the individual reporters themselves. Many of them were good journalists who worked hard to tell the story they could see. But the limited left-right framework of the twenty-four-hour news cycle made it difficult for them to name what was happening, where it had come from, and what it might offer beyond North Carolina. Whether they considered themselves Republican, Democrat, or independent, the people who showed up at Moral Mondays got it. They went home and told their friends, and the movement continued to grow more diverse. It became clear that a new justice movement was rising up from the soil of grassroots organizing here in North Carolina. If a Third Reconstruction could take root here, we knew it could happen anywhere.
On his fiftieth birthday, at the end of the long summer of 2013, I sat down with Reverend Barber and recorded interviews that provided the basic outline for a book that would become The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement. In the course of that day, we were interrupted only once, by a reporter who tracked him down at my office. It would prove to be a rare respite. As I worked to write the story, we scheduled follow-up interviews in which I checked facts, probed Reverend Barber’s memory, and sought clarity about his vision. We often met when he was on his way to or from the airport, sharing the movement with others even as he studied what was happening in their places. Our conversations mixed with calls from people on the ground in Ferguson, aides at the White House, lawyers reporting on challenges in the courts, reporters asking for a quote. And those were just the people who had his cell phone number. A few times we tried to continue a conversation while walking down the street in Durham. Without explanation, people would stop us to ask if they could have their picture taken with Reverend Barber. A homeless man stopped us to give a detailed report of police brutality. To each of them Reverend Barber extended the same honest but generous hand he’d extended to me twenty years earlier. I took notes on everything. His life, I decided, is his message.
The process of writing The Third Reconstruction taught me something about fusion politics that may help other readers. It’s what I was thinking about as I wrote back to the pastor in Ferguson. I know the fear which has created a backlash against the black-led freedom movement time and again. It was suggested in a thousand conversations I overheard growing up—and clearly stated in more than one. I carry it within me.
But that is not all that is in me. Jesus said love can drive out fear, and I have found great hope in the way white folks have joined the black-led freedom struggle, from the abolition movement up to the present. Writing Reverend Barber’s story, I was drawn to the voices of Angelina Grimke and Levi Coffin, Anne Braden and William Stringfellow. I became more and more interested in the people who said little, but were present—people like Stanley Levison, from whom Martin Luther King Jr. refused to dissociate himself, even when asked to do so by the president himself (FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had convinced President Kennedy that Levison was a Communist, manipulating King and the civil rights movement). These stories are little known, but they help people like me to see that we have a role to play in fusion politics and in the Third Reconstruction.
Our job is not to take the lead, but to pledge our allegiance to the other America—the country that has not yet been but that one day shall be.
Fear is at the root of the violent backlash that the Third Reconstruction faces. I have read through the death threats Reverend Barber receives, and I have watched the fears of white men I grew up with raging out of control. But fear is not only violent. Fear is also paralyzing, convincing so many of us that there is little we can do to change a world we know to be horribly broken. Fear whispers, “Well, that’s just the way it is.” Or, “These things are beyond me. I’ll just do what I can to love the people where I am.”
Maybe what we fear the most is that Reverend Barber is right: that the heavy lifting to establish a multiethnic democracy isn’t behind us in our Civil War or civil rights movement, but rather is very present in the Moral Movement of today. Maybe America isn’t possible without a Third Reconstruction. Maybe we were born for such a time as this.
I’m willing to believe that fusion politics is not a pipe dream because of a black preacher who was willing to embrace me, even when he knew I was from Klan country. That embrace was one step in a twenty-year journey. But fusion politics, as it turns out, is about one step after another into relationship with the people who are supposed to be our enemies.
I can trust a man who embraces his enemy, then trusts him to tell his story.