The Washington Socialist <> December 2016
By Carolyn M. Byerly
Review of Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II’s The Third Reconstruction (Beacon Press, 2016), 151 pages.
Barber’s The Third Reconstruction is an autobiographical account of what it takes to build a political coalition to confront the right-wing repression that rocks the country today. Barber’s lab has been his own chosen home state, North Carolina, where legislature and governor have collaborated these last years in passing a severe, successive rounds of Jim Crow laws to stifle black voters. They have also adopted other measures that discriminate against immigrants, low-income, women and LGBTQ people.
Because the lessons that emerge from Barber’s campaign in the crucible of one southern state hold potential far beyond the borders of North Carolina, this book is being seen as something of a progressive manifesto for the times.
Barber is a 53-year-old Protestant minister, theologian, and president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He lives in Goldsboro, North Carolina, a town of 36,000, more than half of the residents African American. In 2013, Barber began leading weekly protests against the state’s restrictive measures by taking peaceful protesters into the state house in Raleigh when the legislature was in session. These protests, soon labeled “Moral Mondays,” grew to massive proportion, including participation from 140 organizations, most of them grassroots.
Demonstrators who participate in Moral Mondays are “peacefully arrested” by capital police. Barber reports strong unity at these times, observing that “the scores of arrestees leaving the legislature building in Department of Corrections buses . . . were cheering on their pastors, union leaders, their professors and their grandmothers.” He said, “We didn’t just know one another, we were family” (p. xi).
The protests have sustained themselves to the present time. The state’s NAACP website, for example, which serves as a main organizing space, advertises the “Moral Monday” event for Monday, November 28, 2016, as a gathering “to stand against the policies of hate and fear and the continued attempt to go against the will of the people and to steal our votes and, with them, state elections.” The site notes that “Our multi-racial, transformative movement has more people, more love, more power and more grace [than those who enact such measures]”
The backstory to the Moral Mondays movement and its multiple impacts provides a compelling political roadmap to the rest of us. Barber, its main leader, is the son of two educated African American parents who gave up a comfortable middle class life in Indianapolis (where William was born) to return to eastern North Carolina in the 1960s to help integrate the public schools. Young William grew up attending NAACP meetings with his father, a staunch civil rights activist, and listening to his father (a teacher who also preached) deliver sermons on the connections between morality and political rights. Young William also began to preach occasionally, but he saw his own future in the law, an ambition that was rewarded with an offer of a scholarship to Boston University Law School when he graduated college with a bachelor’s in political science.
However, he was also influenced by strong female figures, especially his grandmother, whom he remembers as an uneducated woman who “articulated more theology . . than some preachers manage to get into an entire sermon” (p. 3). It was “Mama Barber,” as she was called, who redirected William’s educational aspirations from law school to the seminary.
Early lessons in the need to build multi-cultural coalitions would come to Barber with his first job as a preacher. After ordination as a Methodist minister, William assumed his new role at a community church in Martinsville, Virginia, a town that had long suffered the divide-and-conquer tactics of racism and classism. Barber would soon take up the cause of workers at a textile factory trying to unionize in a town dominated by corporate bosses. In preparing for his first fight, he “learned how essential an economic and political analysis is to moral leadership” (p. 17). In spite of his convictions to support the workers, he was backed by all of his natural allies, other clergymen, whose churches had benefited from various generous gifts from the textile factory over the years. The union effort failed and Barber arrived at the “moral analysis” that they failed because they had not built the base to deliver the votes.
Barber’s successful shift in strategy toward building bridges within and across segments of the community was interrupted in 2005 when he was stricken with a rare form of arthritis that rendered him partially paralyzed for the next years. He moved his family back to North Carolina, continued physical therapy that would eventually let him regain a level of mobility, and entered civil rights work full time.
Political reality is central to Barber’s analysis of problems and vision for the future, but his grounding in a moral righteousness born of his Christian faith guides his work. The US Supreme Court had ruled in 1986 that North Carolina had discriminated against its black citizens between 1900 and 1970 by employing a poll tax, a literacy test, a prohibition against single-shot voting and designating seat plans for multimember districts. Even so, the effects of those measures continued in a white power structure that marginalized black citizens in every way. Barber saw that people had the right to vote, but they didn’t always have time to make sure their paperwork was in order at the elections office or couldn’t take time off work to vote, especially if their jobs were hours away from the polling station. He also questioned a society that gave people the vote but not a wage sufficient to feed themselves and their children.
Barber describes the economic battle thus delivered by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United vs. The Federal Election Commission ruling in 2008, saying that under the First Amendment, corporate funding to political campaigns cannot be limited. That ruling allowed Republicans to pour vast amounts of money into the 2010 midterm elections and take over state and local governments. In North Carolina, an ultraconservative business man named Art Pope aimed to subvert Barber’s “fusion coalition power” by investing his family’s fortune in Republican campaigns and by defending institutional racism by speaking “quietly about small government, fiscal responsibility, and the inefficiencies of government programs” (p. 63). Pope thus orchestrated a take-over by extremists in the North Carolina legislature by appealing to Republican reasoning to benefit themselves at the expense of those less fortunate.
Seeing this as “a profound moral struggle”, Barber turned to the gospel of Luke for inspiration in calling a divided people together. He began preaching about liberation and the need to struggle, and he invoked the message of Frederick Douglass “who taught us back in the nineteenth century that power concedes nothing without a demand” (p. 65). He interpreted Jesus’ message of “love your enemies” as “strategic advice for long-term success in any freedom struggle”, and he invoked Gandhi’s tactics of nonviolent resistance to build a new nation and world (p. 67).
The hordes on Moral Mondays who swarmed into hallways and chambers of Raleigh’s state house, challenging legislators with chants like “Fund education, not incarceration,” saw success in rulings like Judge Howard Manning’s which said that “it is the duty of the State of North Carolina to protect each and every one of these at-risk and defenseless children, and to provide them with opportunity . .” (p. 81). Barber reflects, “We had risked the reputation of our moral movement by choosing to escalate our struggle through civil disobedience, and the increased intensity had stretches us as a coalition. . . Saul Alinsky and his community organizing tradition had shown us the importance of building power and only tackling ‘winnable issues’” (p. 81). Thus, Barber is no stranger to radical politics which he has incorporated into a movement strategy for a “Third Reconstruction” (the book’s title), with the first reconstruction occurring after the Civil War and the second, ______________.
Barber has received numerous awards for his political activism, as well as found praise from those on the Left. The Nation’s Ari Berman called him one of the “most gifted organizers and orators in the country today,” for his ability to mobilize broad coalitions against “shameful policies” and to show the power of civil disobedience. On July 28, 2016, Barber electrified delegates at the Democratic National Convention when he spoke about the need for “a moral revolution in values” in politics to achieve justice.
Barber’s appeal, I believe, is ultimately in the practicality of his politics, his embrace of all forms of diversity, and the utter believability of his message. When he refers to Jesus as a “brown-skinned Palestinian Jew,” he draws applause, and when he talks about the plight of the hungry, he gets nods across the auditorium of brown, black and white delegates. When he invokes the Constitution’s mandate that the federal government should provide for “all of the people” and “assure domestic tranquility” there is nothing to argue against. There has been consistency in Barber’s fusion politics of intersectionality – he has advocated for rights and welfare of the poor, the elderly, immigrants and LGBTQ people. He calls for an end to war and the use of military style weapons on our streets, asking others to stand up to the NRA, and he is a harsh critic of those who employ religion to oppress others. Barber’s politics and religious orientation conjures up other black preachers who have successfully joined politics and morality to organize broad constituents.
Barber’s book, which is finding a growing audience among activists of many stripes, was co-written by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a former Republican and Southern Baptist from (as he says) Klan country. In his Afterword, Wilson-Hartgrove, now a minister, observes that Barber’s work has a longer history and deeper context than might at first be apparent. North Carolinians have built multi-ethnic coalitions before to effect political change, and this co-author says that the time is at hand to do this again on a broader scale: “Fusion politics, as it turns out, is about one step after another into a relationship with the people who are supposed to be our enemies” (p. 135).
The book’s final chapter provides a 14-step plan for taking on that challenge.
14 Steps Toward Transformation[i]
Rev. Barber has a 14-step recipe for building a diverse moral political movement toward a Third Reconstruction. Generally, these steps call for fusing membership across demographics, on a state-by-state basis, to “mobilize in the streets, at the polls, and in the courtrooms” (p. 127):
1. Engage in indigenously led grassroots organizing across the state. “There is no end run around the relational work of building and empowering local people.” Therefore, equip and enable small groups of people to meet in their home communities to talk about what concerns them.
2. Use moral language to frame and critique public policy, regardless of who is in power. “Every budget is a moral document – or an immoral one. We must reclaim moral language in the public square.”
3. Demonstrate a commitment to civil disobedience that follows the steps of nonviolent action and is designed to change the public conversation and consciousness. “A Third Reconstruction depends upon escalating non-cooperation in order to demonstrate our capacity to sacrifice for a better future.”
4. Build a stage from which to lift the voices of everyday people impacted by immoral policies. “Directly affected people are the best moral witnesses. Our movement exists to let their voices be heard.”
5. Recognize the centrality of race. “Our moral movement must be committed to the long-term work of racial equality.”
6. Build a broad, diverse coalition including moral and religious leaders of all faiths. Finding common ground among different faith traditions, including Islam, is essential to the Third Reconstruction.
7. Intentionally diversify the movement with the goal of winning unlikely allies. Bring people together and help them to listen to one another. “We have no permanent enemies, only permanent issues, rooted in our deepest moral and constitutional values.”
8. Build transformative, long-term coalition relationships rooted in a clear agenda that doesn’t measure success only by electoral outcomes. Fusion coalitions are not just about “I’ll support your issues if you will support mine,” but rather arriving at a genuine understanding of where and how our issues intersect.
9. Make a serious commitment to academic and empirical analysis of policy. Our coalitions must include activist scholars and a serious consideration of data. Moral politics are rooted in sound facts.
10. Coordinate use of all forms of social media: video, text, Twitter, Facebook, and so forth. Mainstream media outlets aren’t always reliable to speak for us – we must speak for ourselves using all means necessary.
11. Engage in voter registration and education. That education should include informing voters how candidates have previously voted and what the impact of issue-campaigns could be.
12. Pursue a strong legal strategy. A strong legal team and commitment to mobilizing in the courtroom must be part of a strong moral political movement.
13. Engage the cultural arts. Study the history of song, stories, poetry and other art forms in helping people imagine a future they do not yet see.
14. Resist the “one moment” mentality; we are building a movement! No single victory, no single setback should define the whole movement.
[i] Summarized from W. J. Barber and J. Wilson-Hartgrove, The Third Reconstruction, Beacon Press, 2016, pp. 127-130.
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