The Rev. Wil­liam Bar­ber II: Ac­tivist, ad­vo­cate, preacher

The Herald-Sun (Sunday) - - Front page - BY MARTHA QUILLIN [email protected]­sob­

Half an hour into a ser­mon at the Na­tional Cathe­dral in Wash­ing­ton last June about peo­ple liv­ing on the mar­gins of Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, the Rev. Wil­liam J. Bar­ber II paused to ask, “Can I preach like I would at home for a minute?”

He shed his pro­fes­so­rial tone and slipped into the more pas­sion­ate style he uses in his pul­pit at the mostly AfricanAmer­i­can Green­leaf Chris­tian Church in Golds­boro.

Head­ing into the crescendo of his mes­sage of how God uses peo­ple who have been re­jected by so­ci­ety to bring about rev­o­lu­tion, he played his voice like a pipe or­gan, hit­ting high notes and low ones, hold­ing some and snap­ping oth­ers off. He boomed. He whis­pered. He trem­bled. He sweated.

He brought the con­gre­ga­tion to its feet.

Ask­ing per­mis­sion was rhetor­i­cal. Bar­ber was go­ing to preach any­way. The truth is, he is at home any time he is talk­ing about the con­di­tion of Amer­ica’s poor, whether that’s at a protest at the N.C. Leg­isla­tive Build­ing in Raleigh, a get-out-the-vote rally in Mis­sis­sippi, an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence at the Vat­i­can or a cathe­dral in the U.S. cap­i­tal.

Bar­ber, 55, is The News & Ob­server’s 2018 Tar Heel of the Year, an honor that rec­og­nizes a North Carolina res­i­dent who has made last­ing and sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions in the state and be­yond. Four fi­nal­ists also are hon­ored.

Since step­ping down as pres­i­dent of the N.C. NAACP last year, Bar­ber has gone na­tional, us­ing the strate­gies and mo­men­tum of the Moral Mon­day Move­ment that brought world­wide at­ten­tion to what Bar­ber called the re­gres­sive poli­cies of ex­trem­ist North Carolina law­mak­ers.

When Bar­ber and his fol­low­ers first gath­ered to protest the ac­tions of the N.C. Gen­eral Assem­bly start­ing in 2007, he told them that if they pushed back against laws that hurt poor peo­ple, women, gays, im­mi­grants, mi­nori­ties and the unin­sured, they could save their state. Now he tells pro­test­ers, “We’re fight­ing to save the soul of Amer­ica.”

With his skills as a theo-po­lit­i­cal strate­gist, his fo­cus on the big pic­ture, his deep un­der­stand­ing of his­tory and his abil­ity to move an au­di­ence’s emo­tions the way a con­duc­tor di­rects a sym­phony, Bar­ber may be in a unique po­si­tion to force a con­ver­sa­tion about what it means for Amer­ica to have 140 mil­lion ci­ti­zens liv­ing in poverty or

with low wealth.

Bar­ber be­lieves he will be wast­ing his life if he doesn’t try.

“You can’t fol­low Je­sus and not say some­thing when you see in­jus­tice,” Bar­ber says. “We’re not al­lowed to stand down and re­treat. The prophetic call de­mands that we say some­thing.”


As a younger man, Bar­ber didn’t want to heed that call.

Born Aug. 30, 1963, in In­di­anapo­lis, Bar­ber likes to point out that he came into the world two days af­ter the his­toric March on Wash­ing­ton, when a quar­ter-mil­lion peo­ple gath­ered to protest con­tin­u­ing in­equal­i­ties af­fect­ing African-Amer­i­cans. Had they lived closer, his par­ents might have joined the crowd and heard Martin Luther King Jr. give his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Bar­ber’s mother, an In­di­ana na­tive, and his fa­ther, from North Carolina, were early par­tic­i­pants in the fight for civil rights. The el­der Wil­liam Bar­ber was a sem­i­nary grad­u­ate and a promis­ing young pas­tor when E.V. Wilkins, a black ed­u­ca­tor and ac­tivist in Wash­ing­ton County, asked him to come home to North Carolina and help in­te­grate the schools.

The fam­ily moved to Roper, where the Bar­bers were hired at the all-black Union High School and en­rolled their son in kinder­garten at the black ele­men­tary school. When the county de­seg­re­gated its schools, the el­der Bar­ber was hired to teach sci­ence and his wife went to work in the of­fice at Ply­mouth High School, the first AfricanAmer­i­cans in those po­si­tions. As he started sec­ond grade, the younger Bar­ber was one of the first black chil­dren to en­roll in the newly in­te­grated ele­men­tary school.

When Bar­ber was 15, he was elected pres­i­dent of the lo­cal NAACP Youth Coun­cil, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that trains young peo­ple to fight for po­lit­i­cal, ed­u­ca­tional, fi­nan­cial and so­cial rights for mi­nori­ties. It was an aus­pi­cious start to what would be a long re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bar­ber and the NAACP.

Grow­ing up, Bar­ber says, he saw his fa­ther was un­der-ap­pre­ci­ated in his side­line as an itin­er­ant preacher, and that some black churches were afraid to host him be­cause of his role as a com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer and his out­spo­ken­ness on the ills of racism. It was one of the rea­sons the younger Bar­ber left the church for a while.

“I was through,” Bar­ber says, and he was so sure about it that he chose to at­tend col­lege at N.C. Cen­tral Uni­ver­sity in Durham specif­i­cally be­cause it didn’t re­quire stu­dents to take re­li­gion cour­ses. He planned to get a law de­gree and be­come a civil rights at­tor­ney.

Bar­ber en­tered stu­dent govern­ment at NCCU, serv­ing as class pres­i­dent his fresh­man and sopho­more years.


As a ju­nior, he was liv­ing in a sin­gle room on cam­pus and should have been en­joy­ing the life of an ex­pe­ri­enced up­per­class­man. In­stead, he says, “That room be­came the place where God called me.”

He kept wak­ing up cry­ing, he says, and fi­nally phoned his fa­ther.

“I’m strug­gling,” he told him. “I know,” his fa­ther said. “Come on home.”

They drove to­gether to the coast, trav­el­ing through sec­tions of Eastern North Carolina where some things were lit­tle changed from the days when slaves es­caped through the swamps in hopes of a fairer life else­where.

Church, Bar­ber’s fa­ther told him, is an in­sti­tu­tion run by man and can never be per­fect. God al­ways is.

“I think I’m ready,” Bar­ber told his dad.

He grad­u­ated from NCCU in 1985 with a de­gree in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence and en­rolled at Duke Di­vin­ity School, where he got his master’s de­gree and delved deep into the his­tory of Chris­tian­ity, espe­cially as it has been prac­ticed in the United States. He later earned a doc­tor­ate in min­istry from Drew Uni­ver­sity’s the­o­log­i­cal school in Madi­son, N.J.

It was the mid-1980s, and Jerry Fal­well’s Moral Ma­jor­ity was telling con­ser­va­tive Chris­tians to join the Repub­li­can Party and was push­ing the party to take anti-abor­tion and proschool-prayer stances in its plat­form.

An­other pop­u­lar re­li­gious move­ment of the time was the re­ju­ve­nated “pros­per­ity gospel,” con­nect­ing faith to wealth and other mea­sures of suc­cess.

Bar­ber didn’t ad­here to ei­ther. As a scholar of the Bible and Amer­i­can his­tory and pol­i­tics who says, “the worst thing to be is loud and wrong,” Bar­ber hews to his own brand of re­li­gious con­ser­vatism. As he puts it, his be­liefs ad­here to the es­sen­tial teach­ings of the Bible and espe­cially of Je­sus.

He of­ten tells au­di­ences he is frus­trated with what he says is a false na­tional re­li­gios­ity that has so much to say about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, abor­tion and school prayer, “things about which the Bible says so lit­tle,” and is nearly silent on mercy, love and jus­tice for the poor, “about which the Bible says so much.”


While he was at NCCU, Bar­ber met Re­becca McLean. He had or­ga­nized a cam­pus voter reg­is­tra­tion drive and a rally to sup­port the Rev. Jesse Jack­son in his 1984 run for pres­i­dent. Re­becca came to add her name to the voter roll.

Re­becca, now a psy­chi­atric nurse, says she im­me­di­ately saw her fu­ture hus­band’s lead­er­ship abil­i­ties.

“But what im­pressed me most was that he has al­ways been con­cerned about those who did not have a voice,” she says. “He stood up for those who are os­tra­cized and op­pressed. He al­ways had that voice for oth­ers who were not able to speak for them­selves.”

They mar­ried in 1987. Bar­ber grad­u­ated from Duke in ’89 and was or­dained by the Chris­tian Church (Dis­ci­ples of Christ), the same as his fa­ther. The de­nom­i­na­tion has a strong so­cial jus­tice bent.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing, he took a job as a pas­tor in Martinsville, Va., then re­turned to Durham to serve as the cam­pus min­is­ter for NCCU in 1992. In 1993, thenGov. Jim Hunt’s ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­pointed Bar­ber to lead the state Hu­man Re­la­tions Com­mis­sion, in charge of en­forc­ing North Carolina’s hous­ing and em­ploy­ment non-dis­crim­i­na­tion laws.

At the time, Bar­ber was com­ing around to the no­tion that, like his fa­ther, he didn’t need to lead a church to be an ef­fec­tive preacher or pas­tor. So when Green­leaf, a church founded by for­mer slaves, called and asked him to come to work there full­time, he de­clined.

He did agree to preach there while the con­gre­ga­tion looked for some­one else, but af­ter his first ser­mon, he says, one of the older women in the church told him the Lord wanted him to “come down here and be our pas­tor.” Bar­ber couldn’t re­ally ex­plain it, he says, but he ac­cepted the job.

Be­fore he could start it, though, the for­mer high school foot­ball player woke up in his bed in Durham in July 1993 in ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain, nearly un­able to move. He couldn’t bend his knees, lift his legs or even roll over. An am­bu­lance took him to the hos­pi­tal, where doc­tors even­tu­ally di­ag­nosed a se­vere case of anky­los­ing spondyli­tis, a rare form of arthri­tis that had frozen his neck, the base of his spine and his hips in place. He spent sev­eral months in the hos­pi­tal and was told, at age 30, he might never walk on his own again.

Green­leaf’s mem­bers stood by Bar­ber through his painful phys­i­cal re­hab and in­sisted they still wanted him as their pas­tor. The fam­ily moved to Golds­boro, and Bar­ber started an am­bi­tious min­istry at the church while he was still us­ing a walker.

Within four years, the church launched a com­mu­nity devel­op­ment cor­po­ra­tion, called Re­build­ing Bro­ken Places, to re­vi­tal­ize the area of north Golds­boro within a two-mile ra­dius of the church. It cre­ated 41 low-in­come se­nior cit­i­zen apart­ments, a day care cen­ter and job train­ing pro­gram, and helped low- and mod­er­atein­come fam­i­lies qual­ify for loans and as­sis­tance to ac­quire their own homes.

“And none of the money comes through the church,” Bar­ber says, so there can be no

ques­tion of fi­nan­cial im­pro­pri­ety. Through it all, peo­ple who un­der­stood his phys­i­cal prob­lems told Bar­ber, “You can’t do all that.” It was true, he says; he couldn’t. But he was learn­ing that a great mix of peo­ple work­ing to­gether could.

Through the church’s work in Golds­boro, Bar­ber saw that de­spite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Ed­u­ca­tion rul­ing or­der­ing the de­seg­re­ga­tion of pub­lic schools, the ones in his town were go­ing back­ward. The lo­cal school board had drawn at­ten­dance zones so that, for in­stance, Golds­boro High School was 99 per­cent black and most of its stu­dents poor.

It was one of many is­sues that a state chap­ter of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion for the Ad­vance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple should ad­dress, Bar­ber thought. Run­ning on a cam­paign that the N.C. NAACP should be less about so­cial­iz­ing and more about so­cial jus­tice, Bar­ber was elected pres­i­dent of the group in 2005.

In 2006, Bar­ber and the NAACP con­vened a group of po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists, lawyers, ac­tivists and re­li­gious lead­ers from across the state for the first meet­ing of the His­toric Thou­sands on Jones Coali­tion. They nick­named it HKonJ, with the “J” for the Jones Street ad­dress in Raleigh where the leg­is­la­ture meets. In Fe­bru­ary 2007, the group pre­sented a list of 14 agenda items for the then-Demo­crat-led North Carolina leg­is­la­ture, cen­tered around ed­u­ca­tion, a liv­ing wage and other work­place is­sues, health care, vot­ing rights, his­tor­i­cal re­dress, af­ford­able hous­ing, ap­pli­ca­tion of the death penalty, en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice and im­mi­grant rights.

The group has gath­ered and held a “Moral March” in Raleigh on the sec­ond Sat­ur­day in Fe­bru­ary ever since.


In 2009, the NAACP sued the Wayne County school sys­tem, claim­ing it was re­seg­re­gat­ing its schools by race.

But it was in 2013 that Bar­ber be­gan to draw the at­ten­tion of news crews and so­cial jus­tice or­ga­niz­ers around the na­tion. It was the year af­ter Repub­li­can Gov. Pat McCrory and Repub­li­can ma­jori­ties were elected in both the N.C. House and the Se­nate through ger­ry­man­dered vot­ing dis­tricts.

In a flurry of ac­tiv­ity, the law­mak­ers cut ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing and un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fits, opted out of Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion, re­stricted abor­tion and vot­ing rights, re­laxed en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions, and ap­proved House Bill 2, of­ten re­ferred to as “the bath­room bill,” which, among other things, pro­hib­ited trans­gen­der peo­ple from us­ing pub­lic bath­rooms that didn’t match the gen­der stated on their birth cer­tifi­cates.

Bar­ber led protests at the Leg­is­la­ture, call­ing them “Moral Mon­days.” They started in April with a few hun­dred peo­ple and swelled to thou­sands through the sum­mer. De­mand­ing to ex­er­cise their con­sti­tu­tional right to in­struct their elected of­fi­cials, grow­ing num­bers of pro­test­ers each week de­fied or­ders to leave the leg­isla­tive build­ing and were ar­rested.

By Au­gust, Bar­ber and 1,000 other peo­ple – black and white, old, young, work­ing, re­tired, some re­li­gious and oth­ers ag­nos­tic – had been pro­cessed through the county court­house for cre­at­ing a dis­tur­bance in “the peo­ple’s house.”

“I’m not try­ing to get ar­rested,” Bar­ber says. “But they say I need to stop rais­ing the is­sues, and I can’t do that.” Poli­cies that trap peo­ple in poverty, he says, “are morally in­de­fen­si­ble, con­sti­tu­tion­ally in­con­sis­tent and eco­nom­i­cally in­sane.”

Whether it was the pub­lic protests, the le­gal chal­lenges or the bad pub­lic­ity for the state that fol­lowed, op­po­nents of the con­ser­va­tive agenda saw some suc­cess. HB2 – the bath­room bill – even­tu­ally was partly re­pealed. A fed­eral court found the vot­ing rights re­stric­tions un­law­ful. McCrory be­came the first sit­ting North Carolina gov­er­nor to lose a bid for re-elec­tion in 166 years.

Moral Mon­day be­came a model for non­vi­o­lent civil dis- obe­di­ence and spread to other states.

In North Carolina, the move­ment and its leader had crit­ics. Thom Goolsby, a Repub­li­can who was elected to rep­re­sent New Hanover County in the state Se­nate in 2010 and re­signed the seat in 2014 af­ter a state in­ves­ti­ga­tion found fi­nan­cial im­pro­pri­eties at his in­vest­ment firm, called the gath­er­ings “Moron Mon­days.” Goolsby, now a mem­ber of the UNC Board of Gov­er­nors, said Moral Mon­days were lib­eral the­ater, acted out by “mostly white, an­gry, aged for­mer hip­pies.”

Fran­cis DeLuca, who re­tired last spring as pres­i­dent of the Raleigh-based con­ser­va­tive pub­lic-pol­icy group Civ­i­tas, ad­mires Bar­ber’s skills as an or­ga­nizer. But as Bar­ber pre­pared to leave his po­si­tion with the state NAACP, DeLuca said, “My bot­tom line with him is that he liked to flout that he was a man of the cloth. He wore his cler­i­cal gar­ments to ral­lies where he was whip­ping peo­ple up. I have said to him that he should act more like a rev­erend and less like a par­ti­san.”

In July 2017, when Bar­ber called it “the­o­log­i­cal mal­prac­tice” for na­tional re­li­gious lead­ers to lay hands on Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and pray for him in the Oval Of­fice with­out chal­leng­ing his poli­cies, N.C. Repub­li­can Party Chair­man Robin Hayes said Bar­ber had crossed a line. “Us­ing his role as a sup­posed faith-based leader to falsely drive ci­ti­zens away from pray­ing for the good of our na­tion and our na­tion’s pres­i­dent is ab­so­lutely grotesque,” Hayes said at the time.

Bar­ber is reg­is­tered as an un­af­fil­i­ated voter and sees short­com­ings in both main po­lit­i­cal par­ties. Democrats, he says, have failed to speak out strongly enough against wrong-headed poli­cies, and Re­pub­li­cans have be­trayed their roots as the party of Lin­coln. When crit­i­ciz­ing ei­ther one, he says, he tries to at­tack poli­cies, not peo­ple.

In this coun­try, Bar­ber says, preach­ing can­not be divorced from po­lit­i­cal ac­tion be­cause laws and govern­ment prac­tices are caus­ing God’s peo­ple to suf­fer.

“It’s not about the Left or the Right,” Bar­ber says. “It’s about what’s morally right. It’s about the moral cen­ter.”

The power of the Moral Mon­day protests, Bar­ber says, came from the range of peo­ple who par­tic­i­pated and the rea­sons they were will­ing to leave home, search for a down­town park­ing space, stand in cold or heat or rain and maybe get hauled off to jail.

Bar­ber says at least 200 dif­fer­ent ad­vo­cacy groups were rep­re­sented at the events.

Long­time North Carolina civil rights at­tor­ney Al McSurely, who has known Bar­ber since the early 2000s, says Bar­ber’s coali­tion-build­ing makes him a bet­ter strate­gist than even Martin Luther King Jr.

“That is the bril­liance, the ge­nius of Rev. Bar­ber,” McSurely says. “It was to fig­ure out how to wel­come Chris­tians and athe­ists and ag­nos­tics and Jews and Bud­dhists and Mus­lims and all th­ese peo­ple into the Moral Mon­day move­ment.”

Wil­liam Turner Jr., a re­tired Duke Di­vin­ity pro­fes­sor, taught Bar­ber and re­mains friends with him. He be­lieves Bar­ber and his mes­sage res­onate with his au­di­ences at ral­lies, in churches and on­line through live stream­ing and YouTube videos, be­cause, “He has a com­bi­na­tion of some deep prophetic spir­i­tu­al­ity, in­tel­lec­tual prow­ess and a ring of au­then­tic­ity. He is au­then­ti­cally Wil­liam Bar­ber wher­ever you put him. He em­bod­ies his el­e­ment and takes it with him where he goes.

“I just haven’t seen any­one who could com­mand the hear­ing and the re­spect from so many peo­ple across so many lines ... since King,” Turner says.

In 2015, Bar­ber founded Re­pair­ers of the Breach to for­mal­ize the mis­sion of the Moral Mon­day move­ment and to help it spread na­tion­wide by or­ga­niz­ing and train­ing oth­ers in moral anal­y­sis and ac­tivism, which some­times in­cludes civil dis­obe­di­ence.


Last year, Bar­ber and Liz Theo­haris of the New York­based Kairos Cen­ter for Re­li­gions, Rights and So­cial Jus­tice an­nounced that to­gether, their groups would launch a re­birth of the na­tional Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign. The orig­i­nal was a project of King’s that was just a few months old when the civil rights leader was as­sas­si­nated in 1968.

Fifty years later, Bar­ber and Theo­haris say, tens of mil­lions of peo­ple in one of the rich­est na­tions on Earth still can’t af­ford ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties, and most po­lit­i­cal lead­ers rarely men­tion the fact.

The new cam­paign kicked off in May with 40 days of protests and civil dis­obe­di­ence or­ga­nized by com­mit­tees formed in 40 states. Like the coali­tion be­hind Moral Mon­days, Bar­ber and Theo­haris say, the com­mit­tees are mul­tira­cial and in­ter­faith, fo­cused on prob­lems com­mon to all of the coun­try’s poor. Videos of the events have been watched more than 2 mil­lion times.

The cam­paign then moved into an­other phase, hold­ing “hear­ings” around the coun­try and de­mand­ing reme­dies. Pub­lic of­fi­cials were in­vited to at­tend, but only to lis­ten as lo­cal res­i­dents shared their ex­pe­ri­ences: car­ing for sick chil­dren with no health in­sur­ance, work­ing for decades at jobs where they never got raises, de­vel­op­ing health prob­lems af­ter drink­ing wa­ter con­tam­i­nated for years by coal ash.

At one such hear­ing in Greens­boro in late Oc­to­ber, Bar­ber and Theo­haris both came to ad­dress the crowd. Or­ga­niz­ers had taped signs in­side the sanc­tu­ary declar­ing that “Deny­ing Health Care is Vi­o­lence,” “Starv­ing a Child is Vi­o­lence” and “The War on the Poor Is Im­moral.”

Theo­haris, a Pres­by­te­rian min­is­ter who has done an­tipoverty work through­out her ca­reer, says peo­ple who doubt that a Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign can make a dif­fer­ence need to study his­tory.

“We have seen through­out his­tory that when peo­ple who are most im­pacted by a prob­lem unite with clergy and moral lead­er­ship and oth­ers of good will, they can amass power and win de­mands and change how things cur­rently are to how they should be,” she says. “At one time, peo­ple said we would not be able to end slav­ery in our coun­try.”

About 200 peo­ple came to the event in Greens­boro, a mix of black, white and His­panic, in­clud­ing cou­ples with young chil­dren and men and women in their 60s and 70s. Many more watched on­line. The two-and-ahalf hour event had el­e­ments of a po­lit­i­cal rally and of the last night of a week-long church re­vival, with mu­sic that went from hymns to spir­i­tu­als to free­dom songs.

Bar­ber, a bari­tone when he’s in the spirit, didn’t sing much that night. It had been a dif­fi­cult week. A white man with a gun tried to get into a black church in a sub­urb of Louisville, Ky., but the doors were locked. He went to a gro­cery store in­stead and opened fire, killing a man who was shop­ping with his grand­son, then gun­ning down a woman in the park­ing lot. Both vic­tims were black.

The next day, pipe bombs filled with shards of glass started show­ing up on their way to for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, Hil­lary Clin­ton, for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joseph Bi­den and oth­ers, as well as to CNN’s of­fices in New York. Then a man shout­ing an­ti­semitic slurs walked into a syn­a­gogue in Pitts­burgh and killed 11 peo­ple with an as­sault-style ri­fle.

The news of the week and the sto­ries of the peo­ple who give their tes­ti­mony at the hear­ings are sources of emo­tional pain, Bar­ber says. He is also in con­stant phys­i­cal pain from the arthri­tis that has made his joints so un­yield­ing that he can’t flex enough to sit in a chair but is most com­fort­able perched on a high stool, lean­ing back with his legs out­stretched.

Over the past cou­ple of years, Bar­ber says, he’s lost about 100 pounds, which has helped his over­all health, but he’s still a big man. He would be 6’1’’ tall if the arthri­tis would al­low him to stand straight. It forces him in­stead to lean slightly for­ward when he stands or walks, which usu­ally re­quires a cane. It also has per­ma­nently low­ered his head so that when he stares out — into a con­gre­ga­tion or a cam­era or the face of one of his church mem­bers — he is look­ing out from un­der the frontal bone of the skull, mak­ing what he has to say seem ex­tremely ur­gent.

Ear­lier that month, the MacArthur Foun­da­tion named Bar­ber one of its 2018 fel­lows for his work build­ing a broad-based coali­tion to fight racism and eco­nomic in­equal­i­ties. The honor comes with a $625,000 “Ge­nius Grant” to con­tinue the work, payable over five years.

If he ever finds he’s no longer phys­i­cally able to travel the coun­try dur­ing the week and re­turn to Golds­boro to lead Sun­day morn­ing wor­ship at Green­leaf, Bar­ber says it’s a com­fort to know he could af­ford to leave his pas­torate and con­tinue the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign. He’s not there yet.

“I like pas­tor­ing a church,” he says. “It’s fleshy,” and keeps him per­son­ally en­gaged in the lives of the peo­ple. Of his dis­abil­ity, he notes that many Bi­b­li­cal and his­tor­i­cal fig­ures have dealt with phys­i­cal chal­lenges. “It’s not what we face,” he says, “but how.”

Bar­ber de­liv­ered a rous­ing ser­mon to the crowd in Greens­boro us­ing scrip­ture about one of his fa­vorite prophets, Ezekiel, whom God told to preach about re­pen­tance even if no one lis­tened. As he al­ways does, Bar­ber gave the crowd facts about poverty, in­clud­ing that in raw num­bers, there are more poor whites than of any other race. Don’t fall for that age-old po­lit­i­cal trick, he cau­tioned them, of be­liev­ing that one group of poor peo­ple is try­ing to take re­sources from an­other.

Then, as he also al­ways does, be­cause, “You can’t leave ‘em in the night­mare,” he told them that God doesn’t need ev­ery­body to stand up on be­half of the poor; he just needs a few. He asked them, “Will you be one?”

When he fin­ished, Bar­ber walked stiffly off the stage to a wait­ing car that took him to the air­port for a flight to Ken­tucky and a rally the next day. As he left, the cam­paign’s mu­si­col­o­gist, Yara Allen, led the au­di­ence on “Break Ev­ery Chain,” re­peat­ing the verses un­til nearly ev­ery­one was sing­ing along.

“There’s an army ris­ing up,” the crowd cho­rused.

Bar­ber be­lieves there is.


JULI LEONARD [email protected]­sob­

The Rev. Wil­liam J. Bar­ber II is the 2018 Tar Heel of the Year, an honor that rec­og­nizes a North Carolina res­i­dent who has made last­ing and sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions.

TRAVIS LONG [email protected]­sob­[email protected]­sob­ser

Ju­lia Perez Pacheco, left, Cleve May, Daniel Oliver Perez and the Rev. Wil­liam Bar­ber II pray dur­ing a rally Nov. 26 in Raleigh.

News & Ob­server file photo

The Rev. Wil­liam Bar­ber II speaks to the crowd dur­ing the Moral Mon­day protests at the North Carolina Leg­isla­tive Build­ing in Raleigh in 2013.

JULI LEONARD [email protected]­sob­

The Rev. Wil­liam J. Bar­ber II leads a Nov. 18 ser­vice at his Golds­boro church, Green­leaf Chris­tian Church. “I like pas­tor­ing a church,” he says. “It’s fleshy,” and keeps him per­son­ally en­gaged in peo­ple’s lives.

ROBERT WILLETT N&O staff file photo

The Rev. Wil­liam Bar­ber II, then-pres­i­dent of the North Carolina NAACP, leads a peace­ful sit-in protest in op­po­si­tion to House Bill 2 in 2016 at the State Leg­isla­tive Build­ing in Raleigh.

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