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‘Closest person we have to Martin Luther King Jr.’: Pastor-activist William J. Barber wins $625,000 ‘genius’ grant

The Rev. William Barber speaks to the crowd during 50th anniversary of the Poor People's Campaign in Washington on June 23, 2018. (Keith Lane for The Washington Post)

On Thursday, the day the Rev. William Barber Jr. was awarded a $625,000 “genius grant,” Barber was hard to reach, because he was being arrested. Which is related to why the North Carolina preacher was given one of the rare MacArthur Foundation awards.

Barber, 55, is one of the country’s best-known public advocates fighting racism and poverty, known for successfully organizing tens of thousands of people in marches and other nonviolent acts of civil disobedience around the country. On Thursday, as MacArthur was announcing that Barber was among 25 people “on the precipice of great discovery or a game-changing idea,” Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign was tweeting about his arrest.

“I’ve just been arrested in Chicago, and I’m waiting on their process,” he said in a call to the Raleigh News & Observer. “For minimum wage, in front of McDonald’s headquarters.”

“It doesn’t say rest on your laurels, but to keep on pushing. In this work, sometimes you get heavy criticism. People do say ugly things, ‘You just want money.’ I just want other people to have health care. You know, Jesus healed everybody and never charged a co-pay,” he told the paper.

The foundation, which also gave the same amount — which is to be doled out over five years — to a composer, an engineer, a poet and an investigative journalist, among others — said Barber was honored because of his work “to expand voting rights, health care, living wages, immigrant rights, public education and LGBTQ rights.” It noted the series of rallies Barber launched in 2013 called Moral Mondays, and his movement’s “successful legal challenges to voter suppression and racial gerrymandering and . . . massive voter registration and education efforts.”

Rev. William Barber builds a moral movement

Barber in 2014 founded Repairers of the Breach, which trains community organizers. Last year, he worked with others in an attempt to create a “revival of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign that was originally spearheaded by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and many others,” MacArthur said in announcing its award. “Merging moral and activist traditions, Barber is providing a faith-based framework for action that strengthens civic engagement and inspires the country to imagine a more humane society.”

A profile of Barber last year in Esquire magazine described his health challenges:

“He has a severe arthritic condition in his spine and bursitis in his left knee. It hurts to sit and it hurts to stand. When he’s bent over in the background and propped against his stool, it’s hard to see the man Cornel West described as ‘the closest person we have to Martin Luther King Jr. in our midst,’” the article read.

“The opposition to Trump so far has been powerful but leaderless — millions of bodies but not many faces. But Barber is working his way toward the middle of the frame,” Esquire said of the pastor who began school in a segregated kindergarten in eastern North Carolina.

Not that Barber, who until recently led the North Carolina branch of the NAACP, intended to be linked to a party.

“He endorsed [Hillary] Clinton at the convention, but he’s a registered independent and calls himself ‘a theologically conservative liberal evangelical Biblicist.,’” Esquire wrote. ”His policy positions fall far to the left on today’s political scale. But he sees most of them as coming from conservative traditions rooted in the Bible — traditions that don’t line up with conservative politics today.”

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A profile of Barber last year in The Washington Post asked whether the King-like approach to talking about morality will work in 2018: “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.”