The Rev. William J. Barber II called a press conference today with three dozen of his friends and allies. The state president of the NAACP was bursting with news:
* The U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights division has initiated its own investigation into the NAACP’s complaint about school resegregation in Wayne County, joining (“coordinating with” the U.S. Department of Education’s investigation.
* Barber continues to press the Wake County school board for a public airing of the NAACP’s case against ending diversity and adopting resegregation in its stead under the veil of “neighborhood schools.” He’s asked School Board Chair Ron Margiotta, in a letter, to explain how the board decided not to grant his request for 45 minutes at a regular meeting. Was that decided in some secret, and possibly illegal, meeting of the board majority?
* Barber is calling on Gov. Bev Perdue, in another letter, to hold a Jobs Summit with the NAACP and other grassroots organizations that represent the working class and the growing ranks of unemployed and under-employed workers. Then Perdue should call a special session of the General Assembly, the NAACP says, to enact whatever emerges from the Summit. “The General Assembly can’t wait until May,” when its annual session is scheduled to begin,” Barber said. “Too many people are hurting.”
Those were the headlines, and needless to say, you’re not supposed to step on your big news with more big news, let alone more and more big news. Not if you want a good grade in Public Relations 101. But forget all that, because the really big news is Barber himself: He is absolutely on a roll, inspiring to hear, and uplifting at a time when we can all use a little uplift.
He’s uplifting, I should quickly add, not because the facts he presents — or that his allies present — are anything but terrifying. Structural unemployment approaching 20 percent in North Carolina. Unemployment in minority communities of up to 30 percent. A yawning achievement gap between the children of affluent families and the children of poor families that belies any talk of progress toward equality. More than 40,000 in prison in our state at any given time, and predominantly they are men and women who lack an 8th-grade education.
No, he’s uplifting because he’s able — almost uniquely, in my experience — to present these problems, this disaster, with force, clarity and the anger it deserves, and at the very same time exude the most amazing optimism that tells his listeners, in effect: “People of good will can’t possibly walk away from these problems once they’ve heard our message, and we’re going to gather them and walk toward justice.”
And then he turns around, as he did today, to the allies assembled behind him — pastors and lay, black and white, labor leaders and the heads of progressive organizations — and he calls them forward, one by one, until a dozen have spoken, and he responds to each of them, and —
Well, it wasn’t exactly a press conference, which was fine because it was held in the sanctuary of Pullen Memorial Baptist Church; it was more of a revival meeting.
The point is, Barber’s style is the epitome of coalition-building and leadership by inclusion. I will add here that I’m not unaware of Barber’s penchant for flying by the seat of his pants (Why don’t we call for a special session of the legislature?!) and counting on a little help from his friends to pull things off. But you know what, he gets it — the help — because he is, in his wide-eyed, true-believing way, an unadulterated positive thinker.
He’s even positive about the media, trusting that we, too, will be part of his movement because, having heard the message, how could we not be?
If you’ve heard Barber, you know what I mean. If you haven’t — I’d say something critical, but I’m still under that positive sway, so I’ll just leave it that you’re missing something.
But if you haven’t heard him and especially if you have, you’ll want to mark your calendars for Saturday, Feb. 13, the date of the 4th annual HK on J. It’s a march and a rally, though as Barber says, HK on J is not a march, it’s a movement.
HK on J (it stands for Historic Thousands on Jones Street) will begin in front of Estey Hall at Shaw University, the site 50 years ago of a meeting to create the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in support of the Rev. Martin Luther King. Participants will march to the General Assembly on Jones Street for the speeches.
This 4th edition of HK on J will be all about jobs and education and the dangers of resegregation, but at its core — I’m paraphrasing Barber, but there’s no substitute for hearing him — it’s about realizing that it’s 56 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, and it’s 50 years after SNCC, and the goals of the civil rights movement were never fully realized, and now they may be slipping away.
The goals, that is, of: a quality education for everyone; full employment; fair wages; and an equal chance at a decent life. Think they’re unachievable? They’ve never been more achievable.
See the effect he has?
HK on J isn’t merely rhetoric. There’s a list of 14 objectives attached to it, each of them with a list of legislative and other enactments needed to bring them closer to fruition. Pursuing these enactments is the everyday work of groups like the N.C. Justice Center, the state AFL-CIO, the N.C. Council of Churches, and a host of other, smaller organizations that work for social, environmental and economic justice and are part of the HK on J coalition.
The American economy is in a deep hole and a long-term tailspin. Our system of public education is woefully inadequate to the day. Our financial system is a disgrace, the health care industry in crisis, we’re in hock for imported petroleum and we’re going broke fighting senseless wars around the globe. But as bad as all this is for the average American, it is much, much worse for the poor and for persons of color who were historic victims of American discrimination.
As Ajamu Dillahunt, outreach coordinator for the Justice Center, put it, “What is a rough recession for the rest of American is a Depression for African-Americans.”
But here’s the good news: A commitment to equality that lifts up the poor will also lift up our schools and our health care system, reduce our dependence on imported oil (by creating green jobs and energy conservation work in every community), and give us pause before we throw our young, and disproportionately low-income armed forces into combat again. In short, equality is the route to economic prosperity.
A movement for equality is what the Rev. Barber is leading, with his growing band of friends. A half century after Brown, SNCC and the era of MLK, it’s time.