GOLDSBORO, N.C. — It’s Easter Sunday at Rev. William Barber’s small church in Goldsboro, and Barber is sharing the Apostle Luke’s description of Christ’s final days. Jesus died for our sins, he says, but he was executed for sedition. The Romans killed Christ because he refused to bow to Caesar’s oppressive political system.
Then Barber, an imposing 6-foot-2 with the frame of the high school football player he once was, quickly pivots from Jesus to present-day politics.
“Caesar may be dead, but the spirit of Caesar is still alive,” he says, “Because oppression still lives and hate still lives and racism still lives and meanness still lives and injustice still lives.”
You can see it, Barber tells his parishioners, when politicians “commit the sin of taking health care from the sick so that they can give tax cuts to the greedy, knowing that thousands will die unnecessarily.”
You can see it, he says, “when they deny the God-given humanity and the human rights of individuals and then stack the courts to protect themselves and their power and then put pornographic sums of money into the political structure in order to dominate it. I can tell you, Caesar still lives.”
Nearly 200 parishioners crowded into the pews punctuate Barber’s high notes with shouts and “Amens!” All who are able rise to their feet.
But the reverend’s message is not just directed at the enthused people in the sanctuary. A cameraman stationed in the middle of the church is beaming Barber’s sermon to some 20,000 people watching on Facebook Live. For some it’s good church from an eloquent and experienced pastor. But others in this vast virtual audience on Easter Sunday are seeking a different kind of resurrection. Barber’s mix of piety and politics, they believe, may just breathe new life and leadership into America’s political left in time to defeat the agenda of President Trump.
More than one person has made the connection between Barber and another fiery southern preacher who, like Barber, deftly mixed religious parables with the uniquely American promises found in the nation’s founding documents. “William Barber is the closest person we have to Martin Luther King Jr. in our midst,” said Cornel West, the well-known Princeton professor and author.
Barber’s admirers say his sermons and speeches, which have intertwined the religious tenets of love, justice and mercy that exist in all faiths with an American vision of morality baked into the Constitution, steal the moral high ground long claimed by political conservatives.
After all, the Bible says little about abortion, prayer in schools and same-sex marriage. Yet there are hundreds of scriptures that deal with how people treat “the least of these,” which in modern times could be interpreted to mean denying them the right to vote or health-care coverage. Last, week, Barber joined a health-care protest at a Sen. Patrick J. Toomey’s office (R-Pa.) and said a Republican repeal of Obamacare would be the nation’s greatest moral failing since slavery.
“We’re really talking about, in a sense, political murder,” Barber told Vox. “I know that’s a strong term, but it comes out of the Bible. “The Bible talks about it in Ezekiel 22, when politicians become like wolves devouring the people and do not care for the needy.”
I'm standing w/ millions across America today to say the fight for healthcare is a fight for the soul of America. pic.twitter.com/kPjCpBmrtm
— Rev. Dr. Barber (@RevDrBarber) June 22, 2017
That message of a common moral duty helped Barber build the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, a racially diverse coalition of believers and nonbelievers widely credited with helping to dethrone a Republican governor and disband a conservative supermajority responsible for some of the state’s most regressive legislation in decades.
Now, after resigning last month as head of the North Carolina NAACP, Barber has set for himself the daunting goal of spreading the Moral Mondays model nationally to resist what he views as the dangerous economic and social policies of the Trump administration.
He’s heading efforts that will train an army of activists in the nation’s most conservative states and put the issue of poverty front and center in American politics. Barber said he sees his efforts as the unfinished work of King, who was assassinated in 1968 shortly after announcing a campaign to improve the lives of poor people.
But even with charisma that arguably rivals that of his iconic predecessor, Barber takes the reins of a civil rights struggle much different than King’s. It remains to be seen whether he can entice enough people to follow him in what is now a much more diverse and secular country.
On top of the laborious logistics of building moral movements state-by-state, Barber must convince those who have joined the resistance because of LGBT rights or women’s rights or voting rights or immigrant rights to put aside their differences to defeat their common political enemies.
Tim Tyson, a historian and author who has chronicled Barber’s movement for more than a decade, believes he can.
“He sees that when you boil it right down, Judaism and Islam and Christianity and all the other major faiths really are rooted in that same vision and same social ethos that’s rooted in love,” said Tyson. “Then this ethos also speaks to people who are of a more activist orientation. Who are not church people. That makes that church a lot bigger — and makes a place for everybody.”
Barber is carrying that message across the country, speaking in pulpits and to audiences of union workers and millennial activists, appearing on the podcast by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and as a regular guest on MSNBC. On his biggest stage yet, a prime-time slot at the Democratic National Convention, Barber received a standing ovation when he called for an “army of moral defibrillators” to “shock the heart of the nation.”
“We can’t keep fighting in our silos,” he told a group of Union Leaders at SEIU 1199 during a gathering of health-care workers in Atlantic City. “No more separating issues — labor over here, voting rights over here. The same people fighting against one should have to fight against all of us together.”
In the summer of 1993, just after becoming the pastor at Greenleaf, Barber woke up in the middle of the night unable to move.
“When I tried to lift my leg, it lay on the bed like a dead weight, ” he wrote in his book, “The Third Reconstruction.”
He was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis so severe it fused his bones in place. Physical therapy would help, doctors told him, but he would never regain full mobility.
For years, he had to hobble to the pulpit with the aid of a walker. Still, his plans for his new church sprinted forward.
Greenleaf sits on the north side of Goldsboro, a North Carolina city of nearly 36,000 where the scars of Jim Crow are still evident. The town is divided — white and black, rich and poor — by the railroad tracks that run near the old cotton mill.
At a church leaders’ retreat shortly after taking over, Barber outlined his plan for Greenleaf’s future: Invest heavily in the three miles around the church. Revitalize the poorest parts of the city.
It was a risk, said John Barnes, a deacon at the church who left his job with the public school system to head Greenleaf’s nonprofit community development corporation. The church has only about 400 members, less than half of whom show up every week. Investing in low-income housing or a community center would take away money that could help renovate Greenleaf, or at least fix its aging sound system.
What’s more, the church would have to take out government loans to go through such an ambitious plan. “Some members felt we shouldn’t do it and they left,” Barnes said.
But Greenleaf forged on. They got loans and solicited funds from the business community. They built homes for low income families and seniors and turned an empty supermarket into a community day-care center.
Barber said he’s proud of the accomplishments, but it wasn’t enough. The community needed more than what a 400-member church could provide. They needed jobs with decent wages and health care when they got sick.
That’s what led him to run for president of the North Carolina NAACP, unseating an incumbent on a platform that called for more activism and fewer banquets.
The next step was logical: Protests at the legislature.
Barber launched protests at North Carolina’s State House in 2007, but the demonstrations became nationally prominent after the 2012 elections ushered in a Republican governor and a Republican state legislature turned North Carolina into a laboratory for tea party politics.
“When you attack voting rights and then use that power gained by that, to attack living wages, then you attack health care and hurt millions of people,” he said on the inaugural episode of Sanders’s podcast. “It’s probably one of the most immoral things I’ve ever seen.”
He admits he has a personal stake. His daughter has a brain disorder that required surgery — a preexisting condition that would be covered under Obamacare.
“When my baby came out of surgery some years ago, my prayer was to live long enough to see the system change that if something was to happen to me and her mother, she would be okay,” he told Sanders. “She’s now in jeopardy of going back in that category of having a preexisting condition.”
He wasn’t the only one with motivation to fight. Between 2013 and 2014, more than 1,000 people were arrested in acts of civil disobedience orchestrated by Barber at the state house in response to legislation.
Barber was one of the first in handcuffs.
He believes that the image of religious leaders getting arrested in full garb fired up like-minded people and was impossible for the media to ignore.
And if newspapers wrote about the arrests, they had to write about the reason behind the arrest.
Earlier this year, about 80,000 people showed up to a Moral Monday demonstration.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who was once a page for Republican leader Strom Thurmond but found himself swayed to Barber’s way of thinking after hearing one of his speeches, said Barber is steeped in an activist religious tradition stretching back to the earliest American abolitionists.
Barber’s father, who shares his name, was an activist preacher for Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) who moved the family from liberal Indianapolis to Roper, N.C., after local black leaders asked him to help integrate a school. The younger William Barber did so in second grade.
In “The Third Reconstruction,” Barber recalled that his father spent Sundays preaching “to people who struggled daily against poverty, cultural trauma, and second-class citizenship.” His father was a man who could have taken a leadership position at a more affluent church, but chose to stay in Roper.
“He was not committed to professional advancement. He was devoted, instead, to the freedom of all people — especially those who have been overlooked by the powerful in society.”
Barber also calls his grandmother, who helped raise him, the spiritual anchor of his family, who spent Sundays visiting the sick and needy, doling out food and prayers.
(Barber is quieter about the living members of his immediate family. He shields his wife and their five children from the spotlight because of death threats.)
If Barber has a strength, Wilson-Hartgrove said, it’s his ability to synthesize the moral and activist traditions he was raised in — and communicate them in a way that moves people to action.
“It’s kind of like a craft, like jazz,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “Jazz exists in all those places where people have experimented with the fusion of things that have made jazz. People sat in a little circle on porches and passed it on. But every once in a while, somebody masters that craft to a degree that like — Bam! Coltrane just walked to the edge of the stage with his saxophone. And that’s jazz. That’s kind of how I feel when I see Reverend Barber on the national stage.”
On that Easter Sunday, after preaching about Jesus and Caesar, Barber doesn’t stay long after church. He greets parishioners who stop by his office, occasionally reclining on a high stool.
Then, he’s off to a week of travel and speaking engagements. He’s established this rhythm over the last few years: On Sunday, he tends to his flock; on weekdays, he mobilizes his movement.
On May 30, for example, he was in Raleigh getting arrested during another Moral Monday demonstration. “This is not so much about Republicans and Democrats, it’s about an extremist all-white caucus that has hijacked the Republican Party and is passing laws that are un-Constitutional.” Earlier this month, he was on “The Daily Show,” sharing the Caesar analogy with Trevor Noah.
Last April, he began a 22-state tour, where he and members of one of the groups he leads, Repairers of the Breach, pushed what they called a “broad social justice agenda” and helped build movements that mirror Barber’s coalition in North Carolina.
His stamina in the face of a punishing schedule amazes the people who travel with him — who don’t have ankylosing spondylitis or bursitis in the knee. Wilson-Hartgrove says Barber, who doesn’t drive, has always had to work with others to accomplish his bigger goals, something that mirrors the ‘fusion’ movements he’s formed.
The bread and butter of his work is done in community centers and empty church buildings across the South. There he shows activists how to channel their energy into actions that will generate publicity and, hopefully, change.
That’s why days after Barber gave his Easter sermon on Caesar, Justin Jones was sitting in the Tennessee governor’s office, refusing to leave.
Barber had hosted a training for Tennesseans interested in replicating Barber’s Moral Mondays movement. Previous efforts to change the state’s stance on a living wage, voting rights and health care had met with varied and unsatisfying results.
“We’ve had a single issue movement and single issue campaigns,” he said. “This is the first time that we’ve learned from Reverend Barber that we can’t have a single issue platform, because we’re not a single issue people.”
By the end of the session, Moral Movement Tennessee was born. And Jones had plans to get arrested.
Two days after Barber gave his speech about Jesus’ act of civil disobedience, Jones was hauled out of the Tennessee governor’s office in handcuffs, as other demonstrators sang “This Little Light of Mine.”
He said Barber helped to guide him before and after the arrest.
“He’s not just this person that comes in and just speaks,” he said. “He’s a guy that says I’m going to come and rally with you. Since he’s been here, he’s called every week.”
Barber said that movement was behind his decision to step down as president of the North Carolina NAACP.
“As you know, extremism is at work in other states, and has gained power in all three branches of our federal government,” he said in the speech announcing his resignation.
“This moment requires us to push into the national consciousness, but not from the top down, but from the bottom up.”