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Rev. William Barber is building a new ‘moral movement’ to reach people on race

June 23, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault speaks with Reverend William Barber and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, co-authors of “The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear,” about what it takes to tackle America’s racial divide.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We hear a lot about how divided our country is along many lines: race, class and especially now our politics.

But in our next Race Matters conversation, NewsHour special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks with the co-authors of “The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear” about their success in bridging those divides.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: In recent weeks, Reverend William Barber stepped down from heading the NAACP in North Carolina to focus on what he calls a national moral revival, updating the Poor People’s Campaign started by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. that linked the civil rights struggle for African-Americans to demands for equality for all poor people.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II, Repairers of The Breach: There was this thing, if you will, called the white Southern strategy.

And the goal of it was undermine black and white fusion coalitions. What we’re going to do is, we’re going to figure out a way to talk that makes poor whites think that they’re losing because black people and brown people are gaining.

And what you do in that is, you make poor whites, who should be allies with poor blacks, think that their problem, their poverty is being caused because black and brown people are acquiring something or taking something from them.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, what led you to try and bridge that gap, and what made you want to do that?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Dr. King said — back in the ’60s, he said, the only transformative force that could really, fully transform America would be for poor whites and blacks and brown people and working people to come together.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove conversion began when he first met Reverend Barber. Before that, he had been a young conservative who had worked both for the Moral Majority, a political group associated with the Christian right and the Republican Party, and also for conservative South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond.

What was your own attitude about poor black people and black people in general?

JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE, School for Conversion: So, I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church in a sundown town. Until 1983, there was a sign at the edge of our town that told black people they weren’t welcome there after the sun went down.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I have read that you called yourself a racist in those days.

JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE: Sure. I didn’t know I was a racist, but Reverend Barber helped me see that I was racist, and, more importantly, that my racism was getting in the way of loving Jesus, which is what I really wanted to do.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Wilson-Hartgrove first heard Reverend Barber some 20 years ago at a meeting called by the North Carolina governor.

Reverend Barber delivered a motivational speech to a gathering of young people. Wilson-Hartgrove was moved by what Barber said and began to understand how racism had been used as a tool to divide. Growing up poor, Wilson-Hartgrove had never before realized what he had in common with poor black people.

JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE: We were taught to believe that there were people who were poor because they chose to be poor. And that narrative kept us from seeing the way that our religion was being used to pit us against other people.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Reverend Barber has even taken his message into Appalachia, and up to Mitchell County, North Carolina.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Mitchell County, North Carolina is a place where, in 1920, all the black people were run out of town over the accusation of a black man raping a white woman. It’s 97 percent white, 77 percent Republican.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Wary, but undeterred, Reverend Barber seized on the invitation of this rural white church.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: I went in and talked to them for about an hour.

And I said, listen, this legislature just cut, denied Medicaid expansion. There are 1,000 people in this county that would get health care, and they can’t be black, because there are no black people are up here. They cut funding for public education. You are losing teachers here. And they have to be white.

Now, you voted for some of the people because of what they told you they stood on prayer in school and abortion and homosexuality, but let’s look at what they are doing, and how it is hurting you.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So, basically, what you did was to talk to them about the things that they had in common. And it registered. It permeated their consciousness.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: You talk to people honestly, you talk to them about what it means to be a human being, and you show them the hypocrisy. You know, you show them how they’re being fooled, if you will, that people are saying, I care about your best interests, but those people are actually putting in place policies that are hurting everybody.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What strategy did you use to reach people who had been brought up like Jonathan? What did you do to convince them that this wasn’t right?

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: I know that many of my white evangelical friends or many African-Americans who were bought into this kind of a public engagement-type faith really have been introduced to — and I say this sorrowfully — a form of heresy and a form of theological malpractice.

To try to suggest that Jesus was just about a little prayer, a little preaching and a little worship and a little charity — the very Jesus that white evangelicals claim to lift up was a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew whose first sermon was challenging the economic exploitation of the empire.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Reverend Barber and Wilson-Hartgrove have been working together in a multiracial movement known as Moral Monday, weekly protests held on the grounds of the North Carolina state capitol in Raleigh aimed at helping citizens understand their common interest around such issues as health care, voting rights and immigration, also how they are affected by these and other governmental policies, regardless of race or class.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: When we went into the first Moral Monday in a diverse role as clergy, investment, first, some people laughed. They said we were a nuisance.

But then they started seeing more people come, and they looked diverse. They said, that’s my teacher getting arrested, that’s my doctor, that’s a black man and white man walking together. That’s a Jew and a rabbi and a Christian. What’s going on?

So, people began to think — even though they didn’t get arrested, they would come.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The Moral Monday movement is the foundation for Reverend Barber’s latest project that he intends to take to some 25 states.

JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE: What can be learned from our experience is that white people need to talk about race honestly. We need to say, of course we’re racist. This is a country that’s built on white supremacy.

You know, it’s not like it’s a personal failing. I inherited this. Racism is about structures that pass on what we inherited, right? Inequalities that we inherited are written into these structures. And when we help white people think about that, I think we’re making it possible to form alliances that we haven’t been able to form.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: And black people can’t be afraid of that.

We have to look back in history. When black and white people came together right after the Civil War, we fundamentally changed this country. When black and white and brown people and Jews and Christians came together in the civil rights movement, it was transformative.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Are you at all optimistic that the kinds of things that you’re doing are going to make a difference in ending racism?

JONATHAN WILSON-HARTGROVE: I think racism is the fundamental challenge to the American project. This is a country that was built on the original sin of race-based chattel slavery. It is how the, you know, concentrated capital in this country from the very beginning has maintained power.

But I don’t think that the future of America is possible without dealing with it.

REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: I’m hopeful. Optimism is a different thing.

I believe we have to be the kind of what I call moral dissenters, moral defibrillators who shock the nation. But we also are seeing something in the wind. You have white people marching with Black Lives Matter.

I had a friend of mine who’s a Sikh, and she put it like this. Quickly, she said, a tomb is dark and a womb is dark, but there’s a difference. A tomb is death, a womb is possibility. It’s dark now.

But if we push and push together and come together, I think this is a birthing moment.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Charlayne Hunter-Gault.