The Rev. William Barber II T’03 was guided toward Drew Theological School during what he calls an “epiphany conversation” with the late Rev. Samuel DeWitt Proctor. They had come together during a retreat for African-American ministers at which Proctor, a longtime civil rights activist and former mentor to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., told Barber about the school’s longstanding commitment to social justice. A dozen years after graduating from the Theo School, Barber has become one of America’s leading voices for the dispossessed, named by Bill Moyers among the nation’s “Activists to Watch.”
“Having studied at Drew,” Barber says, “I don’t know how to be a theologically sound Christian without being engaged in social justice.”
The president of the North Carolina NAACP and pastor of the Greenleaf Christian Church, Barber is the architect of a protest movement known as Moral Mondays. Since April 2013, thousands of people have marched in demonstrations at the state capitol in Raleigh and across the state, and hundreds have been arrested, Barber among them. Their protests have targeted North Carolina’s Republican governor and GOP-led legislature, which has restricted voting rights and reduced spending on education and health care.
“My goal is to be a catalyst for a new kind of conversation,” says Barber, who last year published Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation (Chalice Press). “I think this is going to be long lasting. I see it as a battle for the soul of our state and our nation.”
On Sunday, January 18, Barber was the keynote speaker at Duke University’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (view the speech). In a speech inside a packed Duke Chapel, Barber noted that in North Carolina 1.6 million people live in poverty, among them 600,000 children. Barber has described the Moral Monday Movement as a logical extension of the modern civil rights movement, which launched in 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools and gained steam a year later when King coordinated a boycott of the public bus system in Montgomery, Alabama. That movement, Barber says, effectively ended with King’s assassination in 1968. But 40 years later the election of Barack Obama triggered what Barber calls “the Third Reconstruction.”
“Nothing great has ever happened in America that did not have a deep moral center,” Barber says, “that did not flow out of our deeper moral values.”—Christopher Hann