A late addition to the closing night line-up of the DNC, Rev. William J. Barber may be the least known voice in a cast that has showcased the who’s-who of American politics. Who is this Rev. Barber? Anyone who hears his moral vision for America will want to know.
When I was growing up in the 1980’s, the Moral Majority thrived among the Southern Baptists who raised me. Our churches couldn’t endorse Ronald Reagan, but he made it clear that he endorsed us. A young political hopeful, I paged for Strom Thurmond in the US Senate and studied to learn how politics might redeem America.
Then I met the Reverend William Barber. He was the guest speaker at an event hosted by our Democratic governor, but we connected because of our common faith. Rev. Barber was the best preacher I’d ever heard. He was also African-American. Our friendship opened my eyes to the ways race still matters in our supposedly colorblind society.
Eight years ago, when Barack Obama was running for president for the first time, I published a book on race and the church with an evangelical publishing house. It didn’t sell well. For most evangelicals, President Obama’s election was proof enough that America had moved beyond our racist past.
But Rev. Barber knew better. As head of our state’s NAACP, he was the direct recipient of anger about a black man in the White House. His office not only received photos of Obama hanging in effigy outside courthouses but also death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. Still, Rev. Barber was clear that this overt racism was not the most dangerous backlash against a more diverse electorate in the South. Much worse than Klan threats was the way political operatives manipulated religious language to divide-and-conquer the coalition that had challenged their power. Though he’d embraced me as a brother, Rev. Barber knew well how dangerous the Moral Majority had been to his community.
I didn’t know the history he taught me. I never learned in my public school education about the Fusion Party that brought white Populists and black Republicans together in 1896, sending a black man to represent North Carolina’s 2nd Congressional district. (Rep. George White would be the last African-American to serve in Congress for half a century.) That late-19th century example of black political power inspired a backlash which included Klan violence and intimidation. But it took a political movement to pass voter suppression laws and institute Jim Crow legislation. That movement was led by white men who called themselves “Redeemers.”
The Redeemers of late 19th century America had a clear political goal: to restore the Southern way of life that Reconstruction interrupted. This meant breaking up fusion coalitions and attacking black power. But Klan violence was as unsettling in post-Civil War America as it is today. Rather than use overtly racist language, the Redeemers framed their vision as a moral crusade against the sin and corruption of Northern politics. Evangelical preachers were recruited for the cause, helping to create a “Bible Belt” where white supremacy was not so much a Klan ideology as the natural order. Good Christian people came to believe that advocates of Reconstruction were subversives with an ungodly agenda, hell bent on destroying American morality.
I didn’t know this history when I went to work for Strom Thurmond twenty years ago. In my mind, the Bible I’d memorized and the redemption I held dear were handed down to me from the early Christians who stuck to their faith and died in the catacombs. Our evangelical movement was an embattled minority in liberal America. Or so I had been told. I had no ear for the way biblical language had been hijacked to serve the interests of white power.
But as Rev. Barber taught me what he’d always seen, I had to admit it was no accident that Senator Thurmond had filibustered the Civil Rights Bill in the Senate after running as the Dixiecrat candidate for President. A master of the so-called Southern strategy, he disavowed Klan violence and the language of segregation, following the Redeemers in his appeals for “law and order” to save us from the “immorality” that followed the Civil Rights movement. As an insider in the Moral Majority movement, I believed in conservative policies because they made sense to me on their own terms. I did not know the history of how those ideas had been sold to the South, the Sun Belt, and the suburbs of America. Rev. Barber taught me to hear how the language of faith is manipulated to brand power politics.
For the past ten years, Rev. Barber has been building a moral movement in North Carolina, based on the “fusion coalition” model he he learned from Reconstruction history. Only fusion coalitions have power to reconstruct democracy, Barber argues. Working as a grassroots organizer in his own home state, he has built a movement of over 200 state-based organizations, reclaiming religious language by framing issues impacting the “general welfare” as moral issues. When “Moral Mondays” became the largest state-government focused civil disobedience campaign in US history, Dr. Cornel West told the Associated Press that Rev. Barber is “the closest person we have to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Though he acknowledges a deep respect for Dr. King’s prophetic leadership, Rev. Barber shrugs off the compliment. America doesn’t need a leader—not even a leader like King. “We need indigenously-led, state-based coalitions to build up a Third Reconstruction, ” Barber says. He doesn’t just believe it. He’s seen it transform the political conversation in North Carolina, and he’s devoted himself to making it happen throughout the country. [Learn more about Rev. Barber’s Moral Revival Tour.]
Many faith leaders have lacked the moral clarity to stand against the race-based policies pushed through America’s state houses by corporately sponsored politicians. If they can’t endorse Trump, they’re also not sure how to resist the upsurge of fear that supports his campaign.
The RNC left many Americans sad. The DNC, while its diversity is encouraging, has left me wondering if liberals are out of touch with reality. At the very least, someone had the wisdom to invite the right preacher for closing night. Rev. Barber is breathing life into that prophetic tradition that inspired Langston Hughes to declare that the America which had never been America to him would, nevertheless, one day still be.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove directs the School for Conversion in Durham, North Carolina. Together with Rev. Dr. William Barber II, he recently published The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement.
Update: Watch Dr. Barber’s address at the DNC below.