William Barber II and the MLK Legacy of Church-Based Activism

North Carolina minister William Barber II has pursued the Martin Luther King, Jr. template of prophetic Christian witness and broad political alliances. Photo: Angelo Merendino/Getty Images

It’s easy on this Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to regard MLK’s life and career as irrelevant to today’s economic, political, and religious struggles — rendered moot by progress. King fought against de jure segregation at a time when it was the dominant reality in nearly every Southern state. He was a product of the African-American church when it was one of the few black institutions with moral and political power. And he spoke the clear language of the Declaration of Independence and the Bible to call white Americans to a simple recognition of the racial implications of their own most cherished values.

Today de jure segregation is gone; there are a vast number of non-clerical African-American leaders and role models available; and fighters for racial justice no longer think the color-blind principles of the Declaration are enough.

Yet if you had to identify a national leader for an African-American political agenda, it would not be Senators Kamala Harris or Cory Booker, or journalistic icon Ta-Nehisi Coates, former NAACP chairman and Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, or activist DeRay Mckesson. It would likely be North Carolina cleric and founder of the Moral Mondays movement and its national successor, the Forward Together Moral Movement, William Barber II. And Barber is a leader in the King tradition.

Barber himself constantly, consciously, invokes MLK’s legacy. He was inspired by participation in the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington to make his nascent Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina the centerpiece of a state-based strategy for pushing back against the state-based rise of the conservative movement, which had begun turning his own Tar Heel State into a laboratory for reactionary policies and political strategies. He has combined a rigorous and explicit Biblical mandate for progressive political action with a ready willingness to work with different religious groups and nonreligious groups, refusing to let either race or cultural-issues differences get in the way. And his “Third Reconstruction” theory of Southern progressive politics relies on the “Second Reconstruction” launched by King and other mid-20th century civil-rights leaders as both an exemplar and an example of how much was left to be accomplished.

Yes, there are now many African-American politicians, and the example of an African-American president. But these political leaders for the most part fail to deploy the clarion moral rhetoric of King —and of Barber. Their political coalitions are mostly practical, not moral or theological. That’s a sign of the normalization of the African-American political experience, and of its relative success. But on occasion the times call for something more uplifting and revolutionary, and the religious visions of a King or a Barber evoke a resonant chord in the African-American community that secular figures can rarely match.

Barber is a heir of the King legacy in two critical respects.

First of all, Barber insists on a theological challenge to the white conservative Evangelicals who are so important to conservative Republican politics, especially in the South. In keeping with King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” which challenged the narrowness and hypocrisy of the Southern white Protestant churches, Barber accuses the white conservative Eangelicals of his day of “liberalism” in picking and choosing Biblical justifications for their conservative cultural and political positions while ignoring the broad Gospel injunctions to concern for the poor and the outcast. In the 2016 book he wrote with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, Barber had this to say about the Christian right that has been so powerful in his own state since the days when Jesse Helms stood athwart the state’s politics like a colossus:

We cannot let narrow religious forces highjack our moral vocabulary, forces who speak loudly about things God says little about while saying so little about issues that are at the heart of all our religious traditions: truth, justice, love, and mercy. The movement we have witnessed—the movement we most need—is a moral movement.”

So like King, Barber doesn’t use the language of religion and morality simply because he is a Christian minister, but because he is fighting to deny the monopolization of that language by people whose primary interests are in the secular conservative values of what Barber calls “Plantation Capitalism.”

Another distinctive trait of the King tradition that Barber reflects is an acute sense of the historical context of daily political struggles. For King and his associates at the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the civil-rights movement challenged America to live up to the values articulated by the country’s founding documents, especially the Declaration of Independence. Barber constantly evokes a the “Third Reconstruction” frame to explain the significance of today’s fight against the right. The first Reconstruction occurred after the Civil War and concluded with the establishment of Jim Crow; the second was represented by what we think of as the civil-rights movement and was met by the racial realignment of politics by the GOP’s Southern Strategy. The Moral Movement Barber helped found is, then, the Third Reconstruction, intended to achieve equal rights once and for all.

The Moral Movement had modest beginnings.

On the last Monday of April 2013, Barber led a modest group of clergy and activists into the state legislative building in Raleigh. They sang “We Shall Overcome,” quoted the Bible, and blocked the doors to the Senate chambers. Barber leaned on his cane as capitol police led him away in handcuffs.

That might have been the end of just another symbolic protest, but then something happened: The following Monday, more than 100 protesters showed up at the capitol. Over the next few months, the weekly crowds at the “Moral Mondays” protests grew to include hundreds, and then thousands, not just in Raleigh but also in towns around the state. The largest gathering, in February, drew tens of thousands of people. More than 900 protesters have been arrested for civil disobedience over the past year. Copycat movements have started in FloridaGeorgiaSouth Carolina, and Alabama in response to GOP legislation regarding Medicaid and gun control.

In North Carolina, the disruption of GOP “trifecta” control of state government by the election of Democrat Roy Cooper as governor in 2016 represented a partial victory for the Moral Movement there. But perhaps more important has been the spotlight Barber and his associates cast on voter suppression as a key strategy for consolidating conservative political power, which is now being challenged in courts and legislatures all over the country. Judicial actions against the racial and partisan gerrymandering that North Carolina Republicans have specialized in could, if the U.S. Supreme Court goes along, produce a firewall against the kind of extremist coup that took control of Raleigh in 2010 and 2012.

There are also ways in which Barber is not an obvious King successor. King was an exemplar of the “black church” — the Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal denominations that had long been dominant among the ex-slaves of the South and their descendants. While Barber pastored and was involved in mostly African-American congregations, his denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is mostly white and rural by heritage, and focused on purification and unification of the Protestant churches rather than social or political activism. But that background has made it easier for Barber to build multiracial coalitions, particularly among the mainline Protestants with whom the Disciples are aligned.

This coalition is reflected in Barber’s latest undertaking, and the one most clearly based on the MLK precedent: a revival of the SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign (which was about to formally begin with a march on Washington when King was assassinated in 1968) planned for this spring in a joint venture co-led by white Presbyterian minister and poverty activist Liz Theoharis of New York.

The campaign will be kicked off with] 40 days of coordinated action in the spring of 2018 at statehouses across the country. Like its predecessor, the modern Poor People’s Campaign is focused on what King described as the “triple evils” of racism, poverty and militarism — with the addition of ecological devastation, a global crisis that disproportionately affects people living in poverty.

Barber’s most original contribution to the new PPC — and arguably, to the King legacy —is his focus on action at the state and local levels, which of course is where the modern civil-rights movement really began more than a half-century ago with the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

And while King’s personality helped keep the main of the civil-rights movement focused and fully committed to nonviolence, Barber’s characteristic traits are audacity and persistence. He suffers from a chronic physical disability caused by ankylosing spondylitis, a severe arthritic condition; for years he could only move about with a walker, and is still regularly afflicted by pain. It is difficult for those he challenges into action to make excuses for inaction in his presence. And he is exceptionally adept at defying stereotypes, as illustrated by this anecdote from The Third Reconstruction:

Not long ago I was a guest on Real Time with Bill Maher, with one of America’s most prominent atheists. Wearing my clerical collar, I realized that I stood out among his guests. So I decided to announce to Bill that I, too, am an atheist. He seemed taken aback, so I explained that if we were talking about the God who hates poor people, immigrants, and gay folks, I don’t believe in that God either. Sometimes it helps to clarify our language.

Recapturing the language of morality from conservatives remains one of Barber’s chief preoccupations. It is often jarring to progressives accustomed to a less fraught rhetoric of gradual social and economic progress to hear someone describe contemporary conservatives as deeply immoral people who are motivated by greed and who are making a mockery of their professed religious convictions. But while the Moral Movement was fully underway before Donald Trump executed his takeover of the GOP and the conservative movement, it now seems even more appropriate to describe the right as seized by a frenzy of immoral greed when it’s headed by the great narcissist and business pirate whose campaign was fueled by cultural resentments and hatred of “losers.” But Barber won’t let Republicans hide behind Trump:

Trump is a symptom of a deeper moral malady. And if he was gone tomorrow or impeached tomorrow, the senators and the House of Representatives and Ryan and McConnell and Graham and all them would still be there. And what we have found, Amy, when we look at them, no matter how crazy they call him or names they call him or anger they get with him, it’s all a front, because at the end of the day, they might disagree with his antics, but they support his agenda.

Even as Democrats fight to thwart Trump and his party in the 2018 midterms, the Poor People’s Campaign will be seeking to set a higher standard for what comes after Trump and how voters measure both parties. Barber calls the organization that will be running that campaign Repairers of the Breach, which aims at nothing less than “to redeem the heart and soul of our country.” That means convincing people used to thinking of “morality” as about enforcing sexual codes and keeping women under control to instead think first about how Americans treat the poor and oppressed. It’s hardly the first such effort, as we will recall during commemorations of Martin Luther King’s life and legacy. But it’s a psychological tonic for all those who read sacred texts and long for prophetic voices seeking justice for the afflicted rather than comfort for the powerful.

William Barber & MLK’s Legacy of Church-Based Activism