The Rev. William Barber II announced last week that he will step down as president of the North Carolina NAACP and lead a new national initiative that aims to end poverty and begin what Barber calls “a national moral revival.” This new Poor People’s Campaign will pick up where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. left off 50 years ago when he turned his focus to uniting poor people across lines of race and geography and pushing their priorities onto the federal agenda.
The campaign, which launches in partnership the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, will bring together organizations with a longstanding commitment to confronting poverty and inequality—local and national groups such as Picture the Homeless in New York and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. Barber said a task force made up of poor people and economists, theologians, and other experts will in September release a report called “The Souls of Poor Folks” that will lay out the campaign’s agenda.
Much of the action will kick off next year, when the campaign plans to stage nonviolent direct action in 25 state capitols and Washington, DC, Barber said Monday at an event at the Davie Street Presbyterian Church in Raleigh. The states chosen represent the worst of the nation’s current political climate: Their governors refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Their legislatures have passed voter-suppression laws in recent years. They lack living-wage laws and employment and housing protections for LGBTQ people.
“Extremism is at work in other states and has gained power in all three branches of our federal government, much as it did here four years ago,” Barber said Monday in North Carolina. “We know that the way to change the nation is to nationalize state movements. We have to do it with a state-up model.”
Barber came to national attention in the spring of 2013, when the Moral Mondays movement emerged under his leadership and brought a summer of effective civil disobedience to North Carolina’s statehouse. That effort came in response to a tide of reactionary legislation passed after the legislature and governorship were taken over by Republicans intent on undoing North Carolina’s longstanding reputation as a politically moderate Southern state. More than 900 Moral Mondays protesters were arrested during that spring and summer, and Republican Governor Pat McCrory’s poll numbers plummeted as the actions gained steam.
It was Moral Mondays protesters, for example, who put their bodies on the line to challenge the state’s racially discriminatory voting law, which the Supreme Court effectively overturned this week by declining to hear an appeal on a lower court’s ruling. When this breaking news was announced in the Raleigh church where Barber spoke Monday, the crowd erupted in cheers and applause. Many of the people packed into the sanctuary had been on the front lines of the fight.
Barber knows the power of direct action, and he’s had success organizing across lines of race and party. Under his leadership, North Carolina’s NAACP has fostered the growth of five majority-white branches in the western, Appalachian and primarily Republican part of the state, field organizer Laurel Ashton said Monday. Barber had promised such changes to the organization when he successfully ran for president in 2006 with a promise to move the state conference “from banquets to battle.” During his tenure, these battles have included a campaign to organize black and Latino workers at a Smithfield Foods meat processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, and a school-desegregation battle in Wake County.
At hearing news that Barber will leave the NAACP to advance the Poor People’s Campaign, the chair of the state GOP told The News & Observer, “I think it would have helped him and his causes had he been more of a negotiator than an agitator.” Responding to this characterization Monday, the Rev. Nancy Petty, a colleague and supporter of Barber argued that his approach had worked in the state and said, “Reverend Barber, we’re sending you into the world to be an agitator.”
Barber roots his agitation in moral rather than political terms. Making health care accessible and affordable, addressing criminal justice disparities, protecting and expanding voting rights, creating good jobs — these are moral issues rather than fodder for partisan debate in his eyes. “This is not about left versus right,” he said Monday in Raleigh. “There are certain things that are not left, right, but they are the center of authentic moral values—like love, like justice, like mercy, like caring for the least of these.”
Barber made the same argument last summer when he issued a call for “a moral revolution of values” at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
“I’m worried by the way faith is cynically used by some to serve hate, fear, racism and greed,” he told the crowd. Instead, it was the low-wage workers on the front lines of the Fight for $15 protests, those advocates fighting to preserve and expand quality public education, those confronting hypocrisy and discrimination who were, as he put it, “reviving the heart of our democracy.” The Poor People’s Campaign is an effort to operationalize the vision he outlined at the DNC.
“This is not a commemoration,” Barber said Monday of his continuation of King’s work, which launched in 1967. “This is a commencement of building a long-term movement to begin shifting our national moral narrative.”