Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Rev. William Barber, the Moral Monday preacher who found his legs

When he was in his 20s, the Rev. William Barber contracted a painful form of arthritis that prevented him from walking for 12 years. But he found his legs again, learning to walk and to lead North Carolina citizens in the historic Moral Monday protests.

Mother Jones profiled Barber in April:
When he was in his early 20s, Barber was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis, a painful arthritic condition affecting the spine. Still wearing his long black robes, the 50-year-old minister recounted how, as he'd proclaimed in a rolling baritone from the pulpit that morning, "a crippled preacher has found his legs."
In 2012, extremist Republicans took control of North Carolina's Legislature. They already had the governor's office. They began to pass laws that gave more money to the rich, less to the poor, cut education funding, cut unemployment benefits and made it harder for people who aren't Republicans to vote.

"That's when a group of us said, 'Wait a minute, this has just gone too far,'" Barber said. He believed we needed to kind of burst this bubble of 'There's nothing we can do for two years until the next election.'"
On the last Monday of April 2013, Barber led a modest group of clergy and activists into the state legislative building in Raleigh. They sang "We Shall Overcome," quoted the Bible, and blocked the doors to the Senate chambers. Barber leaned on his cane as capitol police led him away in handcuffs. 
That might have been the end of just another symbolic protest, but then something happened: The following Monday, more than 100 protesters showed up at the capitol. Over the next few months, the weekly crowds at the "Moral Mondays" protests grew to include hundreds, and then thousands, not just in Raleigh but also in towns around the state. The largest gathering, in February, drew tens of thousands of people.
In a recent speech to the American Federation of Teachers (shown above), Barber recounted some of the success of the 62 straight weeks of protest. The Moral Monday movement has broken out in nine other states. Fifty young people are organizing and registering voters in 50 North Carolina counties with a goal of 50,000 new registered voters in 10 weeks.

Barber and his moral agenda have changed public opinion. Gov. Pat McCrory's approval rating has fallen to 39 percent with disapproval at 45 percent. A majority of North Carolinians, Barber said, disagree with using public money for vouchers. Most would rather give pay raises to teachers than cut taxes, most disagree with voter suppression and most oppose tax breaks for the wealthy.

Barber describes his appeal as moral. "In this moral crisis we need a moral movement. not a Democratic or Republican movement," he says. He frequently quotes Martin Luther King, Jr.:
 If you ignore the poor, ignore health care and education and living wages, one day the whole system will collapse and implode...the costs are too high if we don't address systemic racism and extremism and poverty It cost us the soul of our nation. Every time we fail to educate a child on the front end of life it costs us on the backside of life.
Here's what else Moral Monday has accomplished:

  • 62 straight weeks of Moral Monday, 120 actions
  • 1,004 people arrested in statehouse for civil disobedience, more than any time in U.S. history
  • 80,000 showed up in Raleigh in winter, the biggest march since Selma in 1965
  • 50 young people organizing in 50 counties registering 50K new registered voters in next 10 weeks
  • 1,000 clergy came together
  • Labor unions, civil rights groups, environmentalists, immigrants and women working together.

"We are showing people there is higher ground," Barber said. "We need a conversation that understands that some issues are not just  policy issues, they're not left vs. right issues, they are the centerpiece of our deepest tradition, our faith, our values and our sense of what is right."