“I worry,” Barber said, “about the way that faith is cynically used by some to serve hate, fear, racism, and greed.” Photo by Stefan Ruiz for The New Yorker
After the success of the Moral Monday protests, the pastor is attempting to revive Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s final—and most radical—campaign.
At first glance, the crowds of people congregating on a block of Mulberry Street, a stretch of squat brick buildings near downtown Memphis, on the morning of April 4th, might have been there for a variety of reasons. The street venders selling T-shirts and posters and the jumbotron set up near a parking lot suggested the start of a music festival; delegations of men and women dressed in their union best pointed to a labor rally. But the plaintive notes of gospel music drifting from speakers and the black bunting draped over a balcony of the building at the center of the activities indicated a more sombre occasion. The space behind the bunting had begun as an overlook, became a crime scene, and is now a historic site. The hundreds of people, most but by no means all of them black, were gathering at the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum, to mark the moment when, fifty years earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated as he stood on the balcony outside Room 306. The past five years have been a season of semicentennials: 2013, 2014, and 2015 brought anniversaries of the triumphs of the March on Washington, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act. This year recalls losses: King’s death and, with it, the hopes of a signal phase of the civil-rights struggle.
Speeches, some of them from associates of King’s, went on all day. James Lawson, who, at eighty-nine, is nearly as dynamic as he was when he helped organize the Freedom Rides of 1961, spoke about the landmark strike of black sanitation workers, called in Memphis in early 1968 to protest unsafe work conditions and unequal pay. It was Lawson who had invited King to Memphis, to lend his support. (A sanitation worker at the commemoration who had travelled with a group from New York City told me that it was important to reclaim King’s connections to organized labor.) Jesse Jackson, who was with King when he was shot, movingly recounted the final moments of his life. Gina Belafonte, the daughter of King’s close friend Harry Belafonte, runs Sankofa, an organization that connects the arts with activism, and she spoke about the imperatives of culture in the service of social change. But the day was warm, and, by the afternoon, the crowd was beginning to grow restless. As with any rite that is repeated at regular intervals, even for an event so consequential, the speeches began to seem rote. The comparisons between the past and the present and the inevitable declarations that we still have “so far to go,” which tend to reinforce how creative and distinctive those monumental events of the past were, sometimes raised the dispiriting question of whether anything being done in the present would warrant such celebration in the future.
All this added to the anticipation surrounding one of the final speakers of the day. The Reverend Dr. William Barber, a pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church, in Goldsboro, North Carolina, has become, in the past few years, an indispensable figure in the civil-rights landscape, and, perhaps, the individual most capable of crafting a broad-based political counterpoint to the divisiveness of Trumpism. Charismatic, tireless, eloquent, and yet resistant to an excessive nostalgia for the glory days of the movement, he has presence. At around five o’clock, he came out on the balcony. A tall, heavyset, handsome man with the kind of face that people describe as being “of indeterminate age”—he is fifty-four—Barber was dressed in a black suit, a magenta shirt with a clergyman’s collar, and a white clerical stole that read, “Jesus Was a Poor Man.” He has an ursine bearing, and moves methodically, which gave the applause a moment to build.
Allotted just five minutes to speak, Barber began by addressing not King’s victories but the burdens that he bore. “The weight of these years, by the time he got to Memphis, to stand with black men who were organizing a garbage strike, were heavy,” Barber said. “By the time he got to Memphis, he had racists, moderates, politicians, a President, and even jealous criticism from black leaders, who used his position against the Vietnam War as an excuse to diminish his status in the eyes of liberal white America, while raising their own. And then the bullet rang. And his body fell.” But what was more important than mourning King’s suffering, Barber said, was honoring the work that he undertook in the last months of his life: confronting racism, to be sure, but also militarism and poverty.
Barber speaks in a resonant baritone, with precise phrasing, but he is a true thespian of the pulpit: his eyes widen in mock surprise or squint in faux confusion at an act of outrage or injustice. Sometimes, after making a point, he whirls around, looking over his shoulder as if to see whether anyone has overheard him. From the balcony, he boomed, “We don’t need a commemoration, we need a reconsecration.” He had blown past the five-minute mark, but the crowd was with him. He warned, “The Bible says woe unto those who love the tombs of the prophets.” The duty of the living, he said, is not simply to recall the martyrs of the movement but to continue their work. “We’ve got to hold up the banner until every person has health care, we’ve got to hold it up until every child is lifted in love, we’ve got to hold it up until every job is a living-wage job, until every person in poverty has guaranteed subsistence.” He finished to loud and sustained applause. Shortly afterward, at a minute past six, the time that King was shot, an enormous bell in the motel courtyard rang thirty-nine times—once for each year of King’s life—and the crowd on Mulberry Street began to disperse.
Barber had offered the most concrete answer that day to the question King asked in the title of his last book, “Where Do We Go from Here?,” and he wasn’t speaking rhetorically. For the past three years, Barber and the Reverend Liz Theoharis, a co-director of the Kairos Center, at Union Theological Seminary, in New York, who stood next to him as he spoke in Memphis, have led an effort to revive King’s most radical project: the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. At the commemoration, Jesse Jackson spoke about how King, after shepherding the movement to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, had begun to wonder if he had achieved enough. Despite the pivotal new laws, he knew that the structures of racism, inequality, and injustice had hardly crumbled. So he proposed to broaden the movement’s targets from the race-specific concerns of fighting Jim Crow to an assault on the plight of the impoverished across racial lines.
The Poor People’s Campaign demanded full employment, a guaranteed basic income, and access to capital for small and minority businesses. King’s decision to support the Memphis strike was a way of recognizing labor struggles as part of the movement. The campaign called on people across the country to travel to Washington, D.C., where, for six weeks over the summer, protesters occupied tents on the National Mall, in a camp called Resurrection City. The idea had roots in both the 1963 March on Washington and the 1932 Bonus Army marches of First World War veterans who, left destitute by the Great Depression, set up a camp in the capital and insisted that their pensions be paid early. The centerpiece of the 1968 campaign was a mule-cart procession of people from Marks, Mississippi, the poorest town in the poorest county of the poorest state in the country.
Barber and Theoharis met in 2013, at the opening of the Kairos Center, where he was one of the speakers. (The center advocates a grassroots approach to ending poverty, in which poor people are the key elements of leadership.) At the time, he was launching his Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, enlisting a broad-based alliance of Christians, Muslims, Jews, nonbelievers, blacks, Latinos, poor whites, feminists, environmentalists, and others to protest the conservative agenda of the state legislature. Theoharis, an ordained Presbyterian minister, had spent twenty-five years doing organizing and social-justice work among domestic workers and Native Americans, and advocating for the rights of the homeless. The new project is called the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. This time, the demands include federal and state living-wage laws, equity in education, an end to mass incarceration, a single-payer health-care system, and the protection of the right to vote.
Beginning on Mother’s Day and continuing until June 23rd—the last full day of the 1968 campaign—thousands of people in some forty states are expected to commit acts of civil disobedience and protest against policies enacted at the federal and, especially, the state level, that have disproportionately affected poor people. “If you have bad voting laws in your state,” Barber told me, “that’s not done in Congress, that’s something done at the local level.” The movement is largely intended to be an independent undertaking of community groups, but it is aided by Theoharis’s indefatigable organizing efforts and Barber’s ability to project his charisma from the pulpit and the TV screen—he is a regular presence on CNN and, in particular, MSNBC.
On the left, Barber tends to inspire unsolicited testimonials. Last winter, I found myself seated in front of Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, on a train from New York to Boston. We started talking, and I mentioned that I was writing a story about Barber. She said that she had participated in an event with him years earlier, and had followed his work since. She was impressed by his intelligence and his commitment. “He’s the real thing,” she said. A few weeks later, at a restaurant in Cambridge, Cornel West used the same words when he saw that I had a copy of Barber’s book “The Third Reconstruction,” which is partly a memoir of his activism and partly an elucidation of his ideas for the movement that he is attempting to build. “That brother is the real thing,” West told me. Theoharis has also heard the phrase applied to Barber. “He has really given his life and all that is in it to the struggle,” she said. “And I don’t think that happens every time. I don’t think that, in this society, that actually is heralded, or valued, or upheld as what you’re supposed to do. But he embodies this.”
His work has been made more difficult by the fact that he suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, an arthritic condition that causes him chronic pain, and forces him to lean forward when he stands, as if he were poring over a book, or speaking to a child. Last year, on an icy night in Boston, I watched as he arrived in an S.U.V. at Trinity Church, on Copley Square, where he was scheduled to speak. He had been resting, fully reclined, in the passenger seat, but, in a ritual that came to be familiar to me, he hoisted himself up, swung his legs out the door, shifted his weight onto a cane, stood, and slowly made his way across the pavement and up the church steps. I asked him how he copes with his condition, given the schedule that he keeps. He chuckled, and told me that once, when he was visiting an encampment of homeless people, a woman offered him her chair, one of her few possessions. He was moved by the gesture. “I first had to put my own struggle in perspective,” he said. “I had to turn my ankylosing into a testimony, in this sense: every time I’m fighting for health care, I’m reminded I have it. How many people are there that have this disease but don’t have health care? It gives you a sense of deep—not just sympathy but empathy, right?” He reminded me that Harriet Tubman suffered from epilepsy, and that Franklin Roosevelt commanded the country for thirteen years, through the Depression and global war, despite having been stricken with polio—and that all the heroes of the Bible had some physical or mental challenge. As Barber sees it, the challenges that he confronts are shared by many who are called to serve; it would be indecent to complain.
Barber’s career has veered between the political and the religious, but the two paths often intersect: he argues politics from a theological perspective, while his sermons are informed by the lessons of the streets. When he mentions “the good book,” he is as likely to be referring to Howard Zinn’s progressive primer “A People’s History of the United States” as he is to the one that contains the Old and New Testaments. He learned both traditions at home.
Barber was born on August 30, 1963, in Indianapolis. His mother, Eleanor, a government clerk, had gone into labor forty-eight hours earlier, on the day of the March on Washington, he likes to point out. His father, for whom he was named, was an ordained minister in the predominantly white Disciples of Christ denomination, who held degrees in physics and social work as well as in theology. Like millions of African-Americans in the first half of the twentieth century, Barber’s father had left the South—North Carolina, in his case—as part of the Great Migration to Northern and Midwestern cities. He met Eleanor in Indiana, and they settled there.
Despite having achieved a middle-class stability that was infinitely more difficult to maintain in the South, in 1968, the couple heeded the call of E. V. Wilkins, a high-school principal and family friend who asked them to help him with a school-integration movement that he was attempting to build in Roper, a small town in the eastern part of North Carolina, near where Barber’s father had grown up. When Barber was in second grade, his parents enrolled him as one of the first black students in the local elementary school. He told me jokingly, “My first foray into activist work was not of my choice.” It was a family undertaking: his mother worked in the high-school office, and his father taught science. Eleanor, who is now eighty-five, still works at the school.
In “The Third Reconstruction,” Barber writes that his father could have secured a prestigious position as the pastor of a large urban church, but that coming home to Roper “was a vow of poverty” for him. He was respected in clerical circles—when he wasn’t teaching, he travelled the state as an itinerant preacher—but he was such an uncompromising and fervent critic of racism that some black congregations were hesitant to host him. As a child, Barber accompanied his father on his travels. He learned that the concerns of religion could hardly be distinct from those of earthly matters, like racial injustice. He remembers visiting a friend of his father’s, a bishop, who had run afoul of some local whites, and praying together in the man’s yard that he might be kept safe. As night fell, the friend went inside and placed shotguns by the windows. “What’s that for?” Barber asked. His father answered, “That’s an extra precaution in case the prayers don’t work.”
In 1978, at the age of fifteen, Barber was elected president of the local N.A.A.C.P. Youth Council. Three years later, he enrolled in North Carolina Central University, a historically black institution in Durham. In his senior year, he met a first-year nursing student, Rebecca McLean, when she joined a march he had organized to support Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Presidential bid. They married three years later and had five children; she works as a psychiatric nurse. Barber is hesitant to talk about his family, because death threats are still an occupational hazard for civil-rights leaders. “I believe he is doing what the Church as a whole, all of us, are called to do,” Rebecca Barber told me. “And that is do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.” That sense of abiding purpose, she said, has allowed her not to dwell on the threats, which, in recent years, have grown in number.
Initially, Barber resisted entering the clergy; he wanted to be a civil-rights lawyer. “I had developed a distaste for the Church,” he told me. “I always believed in God, but I was struggling with the Church piece of it.” He chose Central in part because there was no religious-course requirement. But in his senior year he had a crisis of conscience over the question of what he could do with his life versus what he was called to do with it. In March of 1985, he discussed his dilemma with his father, who urged him to distinguish between the failings of the Church and the perfection of God. Three weeks later, Barber preached his first sermon, on the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan, he noted, was not concerned about how to get into Heaven, the focus of too much of religion, in his opinion. Instead, “he chose to go down into the ditch, he chose to go down to where people were hurting.” After graduating, Barber enrolled at Duke University, to earn a master’s degree in divinity. His father died in 1988, but Barber still often mentions him when talking about his understanding of Christianity.
At Duke, Barber studied with C. Eric Lincoln, the acclaimed scholar of the black church whose work explored the ways that race had shaped American Christianity—rendering the religion, for example, entirely capable of reconciling fidelity to its creed with slavery and racism. He also read the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, whose concept of Christian realism led Barber toward a practical theology, a way of faith that is rooted in the struggles of common people and seeks justice and mercy against unfavorable odds. His studies gave him an intellectual scaffolding that was no less important than what he had learned from his father about the moral and practical obligations of faith. Later, he met the theologians Paul Tillich and James Cone, whose thinking also became a major influence on him. His approach to faith, however, put him at odds with the Moral Majority version of evangelicalism that was ascendant in the nineteen-eighties. He told me on the phone one evening that those Christians “say so much about areas where the Bible says very little”—abortion, homosexuality—“and speak so little about the issues where the Bible says so much,” like poverty, empathy, and justice.
Meanwhile, Barber’s belief in the possibility of an alliance of poor people across racial lines was beginning to take shape. The idea may seem radical, particularly in the era of Donald Trump, but it isn’t novel; it had a long history even when King proposed it. A number of such alliances formed during Reconstruction, in a grand, if short-lived, experiment in inclusive populism. In North Carolina, the Fusion movement came together to protest the Democratic Party’s monetary policy, which hurt both black and white small farmers, and for a time it created one of the most progressive governments in the state’s history. In 1894, a Fusion-Republican alliance won every state office up for election, and it sent George Henry White, a black Republican, to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1896. It all came to an end just two years later, with the Wilmington race riots, in which an estimated two thousand white men attacked black residents, burned black businesses, and unseated Fusionist officials, replacing them with white Democrats, in what was essentially a coup d’état. The movement of resurgent white nationalists, unironically referred to as “redemption,” had triumphed in North Carolina. Nevertheless, the inspiration of the Fusionists has stayed with Barber throughout his career.
After Duke, Barber was hired as the chair of the North Carolina State Human Relations Commission, in Durham. He travelled around the state investigating instances of discrimination in housing and employment. He was committed to the work, but, in the summer of 1993, when he was thirty, Greenleaf Christian Church, in Goldsboro, part of the Disciples of Christ denomination, asked him to be its pastor, and he decided to accept the offer. A month later, he awoke unable to move. Ankylosing spondylitis causes joints and vertebrae in the spine to fuse; Barber’s neck, hips, and the base of his spine had essentially frozen in place. He had played football in high school, and the pain and stiffness in his back that signalled the onset of the disease had been misdiagnosed as a bad disk. There is no cure for ankylosing spondylitis, but therapy and medication can alleviate some of its symptoms.
He spent nearly three months in the hospital, and began an intensive, painful process of regaining mobility. He sank into a depression, and encouraged Greenleaf to find an able-bodied pastor, a request that the church rejected. With the assistance of a walker, he was eventually able to take a few tentative steps. He continued to preach at Greenleaf, mastering a technique of swinging the walker behind him in the pulpit and bracing himself against it. One morning in 2005, he managed to walk to the bathroom unassisted. Later that day, he bought a white wooden cane for the blind, which he painted black. He still uses it; battered and weathered, it is a testament to his twelve years of trial and endurance.
In Goldsboro, a city of some thirty thousand, he threw himself into local issues, securing funding to build a community day-care center and housing for low-income families and seniors. He had remained active with the N.A.A.C.P., and in 2005 he was elected president of the North Carolina State Conference, which had a history of front-line activism and outsized personalities. Ella Baker, whose work was key to the successes of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, had organized branches of the N.A.A.C.P. in North Carolina in the nineteen-forties. Barber remembers his father speaking about Baker’s work whenever the topic of political organizing came up. “She was a hero in my family,” he said. Robert F. Williams, the president of the Union County branch, was known for his defense of two young boys falsely accused of rape in the infamous 1958 “kissing case.” The next year, he urged blacks to take up arms in self-defense, a suggestion that alarmed not only the chief of police, Jesse Helms, Sr., the father of the future Republican United States senator, but also Roy Wilkins, the organization’s staid, pacifist national president, who suspended him for six months. In 1961, facing a false kidnapping charge, he and his wife fled the country for several years, first to Cuba and then to China; the charges were eventually dropped. He became a legendary figure, and was widely credited with anticipating Malcolm X’s statements about the right to self-defense. “Some choose to only focus on Williams’s decision to have armed guards,” Barber told me, but that overshadowed his contributions, such as his willingness to defend the poorest African-Americans, even those whom other blacks considered “not high enough on the social ladder.”
Barber pushed to return the state conference to its dynamic roots. He steered it into a battle in Wake County, where a school board had gutted guidelines promoting racial diversity in classrooms. The organization set about organizing protests and mobilizing voters. The following year, every member of the board who had tried to resegregate the schools was voted out. Barber also built a coalition of social-justice organizations, N.A.A.C.P. chapters, and youth groups from around the state called Historic Thousands on Jones Street, named for the street where the North Carolina General Assembly meets. The idea was to influence legislators’ priorities around fourteen key issues, including criminal justice, health care, immigrants’ rights, and voting rights.
Unlike most of the South, which reliably gives Republican candidates big majorities, North Carolina is a purple state. But when Barack Obama managed a slim win there in the 2008 Presidential election—becoming the first Democrat to carry the state since Jimmy Carter—conservatives worried that North Carolina could become a beachhead for Democrats and progressives in the region. Two years later, after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowed a massive infusion of campaign cash from the retail heir James Arthur Pope—the Raleigh News & Observer once called Pope “the Knight of the Right”––Republicans took control of both houses of the legislature, for the first time in more than a century. They immediately redrew voting districts, eliminated the earned-income tax credit, introduced a bill that would allow residents to carry firearms in public parks and restaurants, cut funding to prekindergarten education, and engineered a voter-I.D. bill that would have made it disproportionately difficult for African-Americans to vote. (In 2016, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the voter-I.D. law, saying that it targeted black voters “with almost surgical precision,” and earlier this year it declared the redistricting map unconstitutional.)
In 2012, a Republican, Pat McCrory, was elected governor, displacing Beverly Purdue, a Democrat. The McCrory-era legislature passed restrictions on abortion, loosened environmental regulations, and refused Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, in a state where twenty per cent of the residents lacked health insurance. McCrory also signed a law preventing transgender individuals from using the bathroom that conforms to their gender identity. Conservatives in the state exulted in their ability to fulfill their agenda—and to raise the funds to do so—but there was a boomerang effect: they encouraged a diverse group of dissenters to recognize a common cause.
On April 29, 2013, a Monday, Barber led a group of some seventy-five people, including members of the Historic Thousands coalition, to the state legislature, to protest what Barber has said was the legislature’s attempt to persecute minorities and the disadvantaged. As he once put it, “We said if they were going to crucify the poor, the sick, the children, the unemployed, the immigrants, the L.G.B.T., and the women, and then on top of that crucify voting rights, then every crucifixion, as Billy Kyles”—a Tennessee civil-rights leader—“would say, needs a witness.” The protesters disrupted the legislature’s deliberations and confronted Thom Tillis, the Republican speaker of the House. Police arrested Barber and sixteen others. This was the start of Moral Mondays.
The group returned the following week, and nearly twice as many people were arrested. By the end of the term, fourteen weeks later, more than a thousand protesters had been arrested. The Moral Monday demonstrations continued for four years, with tens of thousands of participants. The protests are largely credited with helping Roy Cooper, a Democrat, narrowly defeat McCrory in the 2016 gubernatorial race.
Barber has a particular disdain for politicians who use racial rhetoric and voter suppression in order to win elections, but whose agenda is broadly damaging to poor whites as well as blacks. “They get elected using racial gerrymandering, then enact policies that affect everybody,” he said. He sees the current political polarization as a result of a deception that has driven a good deal of American politics since at least the 1968 Presidential election, when Richard Nixon exploited the resentment of white Southerners in an attempt to draw them into a Republican coalition. The so-called Southern Strategy was, in many respects, the antithesis of King’s campaign. “Poverty has been so racialized,” Barber told me, “that most people don’t even know that, in raw numbers, the majority of poor people are white.”
Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, which was an outgrowth of the original Poor People’s Campaign, also sees a cyclical history of racial division at play. The country “sold poor white men on their skin and denied them basic opportunities,” she said. “Their resentment flares up every half century. And you have to constantly fight it back.” Demagogic politicians, economic malaise, and racism, she told me, often lead people to “vote against their own interests.” The duelling populism of Senator Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign—inclusiveness versus tribalism—was another replay of this conflict. Sanders told me that he thinks Barber “is doing some of the most important work in the country.” More precisely, he and Barber share the same theory of social change: “What he understands is that real change never takes place from the top on down,” Sanders said. “It is always from the bottom on up, and that’s what he is trying to do and what he understands and what he preaches.”
I spoke to Barber by phone one night and asked if the prospect of rekindling a Fusion-style alliance is, at this moment, far-fetched. He responded, as he often does, with a story. He met Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, an evangelical minister, twenty years ago. Wilson-Hartgrove had once been a Senate page for Strom Thurmond, of South Carolina, who ran for President in 1948 on a platform of segregation, despite having fathered a child with a black domestic worker employed in his family’s home. But, in 1998, Wilson-Hartgrove heard Barber speak at an event organized by the state’s Human Relations Commission, in Raleigh, and invited him to visit his all-white Southern Baptist church, in Stokes County. The area was known as a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan. Barber visited anyway, and the two men developed a friendship that pushed Wilson-Hartgrove to question the racial assumptions he had grown up with, and the ways that they were connected to conservative theology. Eventually, he collaborated with Barber on “The Third Reconstruction.” In the afterword to the book, he wrote, “I can trust a man who embraces his enemy and then trusts him to tell his story.” Later that night, Barber texted me images from recent Poor People’s Campaign rallies in Appalachia, with hundreds of people, most of them white, in the audience.
Moral Mondays brought Barber to the attention of both progressives and Democratic Party officials—the model of large-scale protests against legislative assaults on civil rights was followed in Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri—but it was not until the summer of 2016, when he spoke in a prime-time slot at the Democratic National Convention, in Philadelphia, that he became a nationally recognizable figure. He touched on now familiar themes: the common ground of the disenfranchised and the attenuated brand of morality that has been marketed by religious conservatives. “I worry,” Barber said, “about the way that faith is cynically used by some to serve hate, fear, racism, and greed.” His message harked back to the politics of King in 1968 and to a kind of liberation theology: “Pay people what they deserve. Share your food with the hungry. Do this and then your nation shall be called a repairer of the breach.” This last phrase was a reference to the Book of Isaiah and an admonition to leaders who abuse their authority and deprive the poor. (The reference was strategic: since 2015, Barber has also led an organization called Repairers of the Breach, which seeks to reclaim the notion of morality for progressive activism.) He concluded with an extended riff on the heartlessness of Republican policies and those who would “harden the heart” of American democracy, and called on the assembled Democrats to be “the moral defibrillators of our time,” a phrase that brought them to their feet. “We must shock this nation with the power of love, we must shock this nation with the power of mercy,” he said. “We can’t give up on the heart of our democracy, not now, not ever!” The speech was so rousing and so well received that a headline on an article by Janell Ross in the Washington Post read, “THE REV. WILLIAM BARBER DROPPED THE MIC.”
The activist contingent in the N.A.A.C.P. hoped that Barber would become the organization’s national president, but, instead, the following year, he stepped down from the North Carolina conference (he is still on the national board of directors). There doesn’t seem to have been a great deal of acrimony surrounding the departure, although Barber’s independent streak and his growing national profile—he had not consulted with the organization before he spoke in Philadelphia—had apparently provoked some discord in the upper ranks. Jotaka Eaddy, who served as a senior adviser to several presidents of the N.A.A.C.P., including Ben Jealous, told me that Barber’s departure was “in alignment with his world view.” He left, she said, “to create space for someone else to lead, and he focussed on where he was being naturally pulled.” Barber told me, “I left after twelve years—that’s four years longer than the President of the United States serves.” He turned to his work with Repairers of the Breach and to the idea of rebuilding King’s coalition.
Barber had already begun talking with Liz Theoharis about creating a national platform to address the intersecting effects of poverty. They then started a Moral Revival tour, which eventually led to a series of discussions including people such as Roz Pelles, the executive director of Repairers of the Breach; Traci Blackmon, the executive minister of justice for the United Church of Christ, and a pastor of a church in Florissant, Missouri; Alan McSurely, an attorney and organizer now based in North Carolina, who had worked with the original Poor People’s Campaign; and the civil-rights historian Timothy Tyson, who wrote a biography of Robert F. Williams. McSurely, who is eighty-one, had advised Barber on the Moral Monday movement, and serves on the steering committee for the new project. This working group set the agenda, and Barber and Theoharis began travelling across the country, speaking and leading workshops on organizing and civil-disobedience training. Barber has created a structure that allows him to oversee Greenleaf and the Repairers of the Breach despite his constant travels. He begins each day on conference calls with the officers of the Repairers and then with the leadership of the church. “I don’t believe a pastor should be doing everything,” he told me. “I believe in power-sharing.”
Barber won’t discuss the particulars of any of the actions planned for the campaign, since a number of them will involve civil disobedience, but, he told me, “I can say we intend to nonviolently confront our government and its policies and we will refuse to give up our constitutional right to protest.” The campaign has attracted the support of organizations such as the Service Employees International Union, the Fight for $15, and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, but Barber considers the grassroots network the crucial part of what the group has accomplished. “Our movement is a national call for moral revival,” he told me. “Sometimes people will only think of something as national because you have the presence of national organizations. Our focus has been to go to the people first, in the states, on the ground, and build a network of coördinating committees.” The campaign approached the larger community organizations only after it had support from local people affected by issues of poverty.
After King’s death, the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign foundered, dogged by federal surveillance and the infiltration efforts of J. Edgar Hoover. It also strained under the logistical demands of delivering thousands of people who, by definition, lacked resources to take care of themselves, to the nation’s capital. The assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, on June 5th, deprived the campaign of one of its most important allies. The number of people in Resurrection City dwindled from three thousand to about five hundred. On June 24th, the police forcibly removed the last occupiers, and later that day, the mayor, fearing a repeat of the unrest in the capital that followed King’s death, called in the National Guard (thirty-six years earlier, the Army had been called in to evict the Bonus Marchers). The Poor People’s Campaign was over before it had achieved any of its objectives. The movement’s most ambitious undertaking became its most conspicuous failure.
The Moral Monday movement captured the imagination of activists across the country, and achieved tangible results in North Carolina, but it remains to be seen whether its tactics can succeed nationwide. Marian Wright Edelman is sanguine about the prospects of the new initiative. Barber, whom she described as “brilliant,” is in a position to help finish the work that was begun fifty years ago, she told me. When I asked Barber how he hoped to translate protest into progress, he said, “The civil disobedience is just one part of the plan.” A second phase of the campaign will focus on voter registration, building a broader network, and creating a detailed list of policy demands, which will be released late in the summer. “We surely want to influence the 2018 midterm elections and the 2020 Presidential election,” Theoharis told me. But they do not plan to endorse candidates or to cast their lot with either of the major political parties. They want to change the political conversation around poverty, to create a climate in which it is impossible for any candidate or party to continue ignoring the subject. In this they have as much in common with the Occupy Movement as with the original Poor People’s Campaign. Barber and Theoharis seem to see history as a guide, not a script.
Three weeks after the commemoration in Memphis, Barber spoke at the Performing Arts Center in Montgomery, Alabama, for the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a monument to the more than forty-four hundred African-Americans who were lynched between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of the modern civil-rights movement. At the site, a project of the Equal Justice Initiative, led by Bryan Stevenson, hundreds of metal markers list the locations of lynchings and the names of the people who died there. The impact is traumatic, and not simply in a historical sense. Barber told me, “We should be traumatized by the idea that something like this can be seen as normal, and think about the wrongs we’ve become accustomed to today.”
He had spent the previous two days discussing the Poor People’s Campaign with Apache activists in Arizona and with representatives of the U.F.C.W. in Las Vegas. But, despite the long journey, in Montgomery, before an audience of about a thousand, he delivered the best speech I have heard him give. It was a sprawling oration, citing the historian Nell Painter, the Constitution, the crusading journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the lyrics to “Strange Fruit,” and the speech that King delivered in Montgomery, in 1965, at the end of the march from Selma. That speech, which Barber encouraged the audience to listen to in its entirety, contains King’s recitation of the history of populism and the ways that racism disadvantaged both black and white poor people—the points that Barber has been reiterating across the country. (Segregation, King said, was “a simple thing to keep the poor white masses working for near-starvation wages in the years that followed the Civil War.”)
Barber touched on his usual themes of inequality and the mistaken priorities of the Church, but the audience erupted in applause when he turned to the monument itself, declaring that “Jesus was lynched—an innocent victim of mob hysteria.” He again charged his listeners with avoiding the hypocrisy of commemorating the victims of the past while failing to build a movement to address the present. We must pay homage, he said, “to all those who continued to fight, even after they saw the bodies swinging from trees. But there are all kinds of things swinging in the air today”—hunger, police violence, and the hundreds of thousands of deaths each year linked to poverty-related causes. He was interrupted six times by standing ovations, and the crowd was on its feet and applauding long after he’d stopped speaking.
As he walked off the stage, I detected, just for a moment, a rare note of fatigue. Barber is, it occurred to me, relentless, not tireless; determined, not indefatigable. He is driven by a fugitive hope that an ancestral breach might finally be cemented. Backstage, organizers praised him for the speech, but he didn’t linger. He had a nine-hour drive ahead of him, to North Carolina, where he would tend to his church and, after a brief respite, head out on the road again.
This article appears in the print edition of the May 14, 2018, issue of The New Yorker, with the headline “The Southern Strategist.”
Jelani Cobb is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.”