In the evening of Jan. 26, the members of the Halifax County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, most of them gray-haired and sharply dressed, gathered in a community center in Roanoke Rapids to see the new face of their movement: the Rev. William J. Barber II of Goldsboro, the newly elected president of the state conference and the night’s keynote speaker. The occasion was the Annual Emancipation Proclamation Program, a celebratory banquet dinner. A man named Dock Brown, a self-described 50-year NAACP member, was charged with setting the tone for the evening. “Today we celebrate the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation,” he said. “It freed our ancestors, the slaves.” The diners politely acknowledged his remarks and the program continued. Looking back, it’s possible that the stated occasion could have been less relevant to present-day black folks in Halifax County, but not by much. The moment epitomized the challenges that the North Carolina NAACP and Barber, its new leader, face–how to revive an organization whose members, whose style, whose very name conjure yesteryear.
Barber quickly stepped to the task.
He approached the dais after a brief introduction. “Remember that Halifax County was the home of Ella Baker,” he said. “She led the founding of the SNCC movement when young folks decided that the old folks were moving too slow.” A collective nervous chuckle resounded. But for the rest of the night, the stage was Barber’s.
“Do we really understand the contemporary situation?” he bellowed. “Is there an understanding that after you leave this banquet there is work to do?” He continued: “We’re not a social club. If you came here to smile at everybody, you’re in the wrong organization.” Before long the banqueters were on their feet shouting and applauding his call to “get down to the business of civil rights.”
Barber, 42, is a leader in the tradition of many of the black civil rights leaders from the ’60s. He’s a charismatic, evangelical preacher whose activism grows from a Christian belief in justice. His lyrical, often fiery sermons and speeches rely on a strong grasp of American history as much as Scripture, and rouse listeners to anger as well as action. He hollers when he feels his words need emphasis, which is often. Sometimes the timbre of his voice evokes the man he quotes most frequently, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
When he announced last July that he was running against then-president Melvin “Skip” Alston, he promised that the NAACP would “reinsert itself in the matters of our day.” The NAACP, which is nearly a century old, is one of the country’s most prominent civil rights organizations (though many would argue that it’s more than 50 years past its prime–the Brown v. Board decision). Each state has its own state conference, which coordinates the work of the local branches. The president directs the state conference and helps define the vision of the organization.
In his campaign, Barber criticized the number of inactive branches around the state, the dearth of youth involvement and a banqueting and socializing culture that he felt had lost touch with the organization’s mission. “The banqueting ought to be a time of reflection,” he says. “We need this if we’re really truly fighting for justice. But what we can’t do is simply banquet alone.”
He criticized Alston for leading a behind-the-scenes approach to civil action and preferring to negotiate with legislators rather than taking the civil rights agenda to the streets. “We are a nation of laws, but we’ve often had to have activism,” Barber says. “First awareness, then activism, then action.” He still plans to work with lawmakers, but “the difference is that when we go into the legislature, we don’t check with them to negotiate what’s most politically acceptable,” he says. “We go in and stand on our principles.”
Barber traveled the state speaking to NAACP branches and local media outlets. As noted in the Greensboro News & Record, his highly publicized campaign was unusual given the fact that only a few delegates from each NAACP branch can vote. But his strategy earned him unprecedented attention around the state and in Greensboro, where the state convention and vote were held on Oct. 8. “In recent years, the state convention has attracted a modest crowd,” Gina Dean, co-chairperson of the state conference, told the News & Observer. “But turnout this year was larger because of interest in the campaigns.” Barber won the election, earning 166 delegate votes to Alston’s 117.
Since then, he has continued his tour of the state, visiting 25 counties since taking office in an effort to increase membership by 10 percent. Most of his appearances have been speaking engagements. With his masterful oratory, he has no trouble inspiring young and old. His challenge is to organize, fire up and restructure the organization to reflect his vision. Alston, Barber’s predecessor, managed the conference in a top-down leadership style; Barber hopes to strengthen the local leadership and shift some of the decision making down the chain of command in order to foster a stronger grass-roots network.
But central leadership won’t be lacking. Barber has formed an executive committee, a sort of all-star team of civil rights advocacy, to help direct the strategy of the organization. Andrea Harris, executive director of the North Carolina Institute of Minority Economic Development, directs the housing initiatives. Angella Dunston, education specialist at the N.C. Justice Center, heads the education committee, which will focus on the resegregation of public schools. Chapel Hill civil rights attorney Al McSurely heads the legal redress committee, which will investigate claims of racial discrimination. N.C. Central University professor Jarvis Hall is the political action chair. Al Ripley, also with the N.C. Justice Center, will work with labor. These and other appointees will collaborate with other elected state officers, like Carolyn Coleman and Curtis Gatewood.
This week the staff moves into their new office space in the Mechanic and Farmers Bank building in Durham, a building that has historically been a key part of the local and statewide movement for black civil rights. The office is close enough to Raleigh for the staff to begin exercising its lobbying power while fostering close ties with N.C. Central, the black leadership in Durham and Durham’s black financial institutions. In selecting the new office space, Barber broke with the unwritten practice of locating the office in the president’s hometown, choosing Durham over sleepy Goldsboro.
Only time will tell whether Barber and his team can accomplish all that they’ve set out to accomplish. “He faces the same challenges I had–that branches continue to be stimulated and stimulating the ones that are not being stimulated,” says Alston, the outgoing president. “That’s an ongoing struggle. And he has to continue to increase memberships.”
But Alston believes that he’s left the organization in good hands. “If I can’t have the job, then Rev. Barber is who I want to take my place.”
Barber was born in Indianapolis but grew up in the eastern North Carolina town of Plymouth in Washington County. His father was a preacher, an organizer and a teacher; his mother a school secretary. Barber’s political consciousness grew from his early relationship with his daddy.
“I remember in my young life always being with my father,” he says. “The community meetings would be in our house. Or my father was going somewhere to meet some representative trying to get somebody to do something in the community.” The effects of those experiences were latent, however. In his youth Barber had a rebellious streak, what he calls the “preacher’s kid syndrome.” He remembers, “I didn’t really put forth my best effort until college.”
He left home for North Carolina Central University in 1981. “When I went to college I saw this whole world–coming from rural Washington County, where everybody knew everybody.” He set out to explore this new world in an effort to put some distance between himself and his youth as the preacher’s son. “I did not want to go to school and have any classes in religion.” He studied political science and public administration and hoped to go to law school. He became the president of the youth council of the NAACP, freshman class president and later sophomore class president. He was elected vice president and eventually president of the student government during the time that Jesse Jackson was running for president. He met his future wife, Rebecca, organizing student voters.
But in his junior year, he preached his first sermon. The rest, as they say, is history. A mentor encouraged him to attend Duke Divinity School after he graduated from Central. He later earned a doctorate from Drew University. His doctoral dissertation, “The Theology of the Holy Spirit for Churches Engaged in Community Economic Development,” laid the foundation for much of his life’s work.
Barber’s first pastoral job was in Martinsville, Va. He returned to Durham in 1992 to be the campus minister at his alma mater. In 1993, then-Gov. Jim Hunt appointed him to be the executive director of the Human Relations Commission, the agency that enforces the state’s fair housing laws.
“I appointed him because of his leadership and his strong commitment to improve the lives and opportunities for minorities in North Carolina,” Hunt says. “Rev. Barber is a man who works at it at the grass-roots level. He doesn’t just make speeches to statewide groups. He does the hard, nitty-gritty work at home. He has taken on some unpopular causes in order to provide equal opportunity for people in his own area.”
But Barber is a preacher first and foremost, and he eventually left the Human Relations Commission to pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro. “You hang around certain highfalutin folk who say you can’t be a preacher all the time,” Barber once told his congregation. Needless to say, he pays them no mind.
Before delivering a January sermon called “Committed to the Cause: Part II,” which would rock Greenleaf Christian Church to the rafters, Barber, in his black robe with purple crosses on each breast, reclined in his chair behind the pulpit, seemingly asleep. Around him, the church where he’s the full-time minister was abuzz. The organist played solemn chords. The drummer kicked the bass. And the congregants, all but two of them black, made their way to the blue upholstered pews, pausing occasionally to hug and kiss. Barber’s youngest son, Andrew, darted on stage and threw a white towel on his father, but Barber didn’t budge, his meditative state so deep.
“It’s a place of centering,” he says. “That’s a serious place to be…. You don’t ever want to appear that you’re ranting and raving for the sake of it.”
From this state of repose grows Barber’s righteous fury, what he calls a prophetic anger, made all the more powerful by his immense physical stature. He inspires the church faithful to bounce in the aisles, holler and weep. The scene isn’t uncommon in black churches across the country, but the dexterity with which Barber weaves his progressive political message with his theological one is impressive. “It is an intentional effort that grows out of a very careful reading of the Scriptures,” he says.
He learned in divinity school that there are three elements to mature faith: holiness, spiritual empowerment and prophetic social consciousness. “In terms of Christian faith, you can’t live a life of personal piety but not care about social wrongs,” Barber says. “You can’t speak against social wrongs and social empowerment without spiritual empowerment to give you the strength and wherewithal to be able to stand up.”
Through his church, he runs the Rebuilding Broken Places Community Development Corp. “We could not be a congregation in this community and not to speak to the issues,” Barber says. “We took a compass and put the point of the compass on the church and made a circle with a two-mile radius and found out everything we could about that radius–the poverty levels, the need for housing, the need for education.” The CDC has built a community center, 42 single-family homes and a senior citizens’ center with 41 apartments for low-income residents.
At that Sunday service, he assumed his prophetic role. His rebuke of the war in Iraq followed only the singing of “Glory Hallelujah,” the first song in the Baptist Hymnal. “You know we have a position against this war, so we thank God every time someone comes back,” Barber told the church members, one of whom had just returned from Iraq. “We also remember those who will never come back and those who will come back not in their right mental state…. I pray God shuts this whole thing down.”
His sermon that morning was about the personal sacrifices necessary to change history, as shown by Mary, mother of Jesus. But the context went far beyond the scope of personal piety. He preached about “speaking truth to power” and “snatching our children away from the enemy,” both references to what Barber commonly refers to as the resegregation of Goldsboro’s schools (along with other school systems across the state).
If there is one issue that’s dearest to Barber’s heart–one that draws on both his pastoral and activist drives–it is the resegregation of black schoolchildren. He told his congregation, “It is theologically inconsistent to say you love God and segregate children.” And his cry has been heard well beyond the brick walls of Greenleaf Christian Church.
The statistics in Goldsboro are startling. The city is the seat of Wayne County and home to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Like much of the state and nation Barber hopes to change, the city is predominantly black and the surrounding suburbs mostly white. In the more than 30 years since integration, Wayne County’s urban schools have shown a steady decline in population. Dr. Craig McFadden, assistant superintendent for accountability, said there were 8,000 students in the six central schools in 1970. When the city and county school systems merged in 1992, 5,000 students were registered. Today, that number is 2,659. Of those, 2,478 are black, 50 are white, and 131 are other races. Overall, the six city schools have a racial breakdown that is 93.2 percent black, 1.8 percent white, 5 percent other races.
“It’s clearly systemic racism, but now it’s also classism. Racism is not just somebody putting on a white sheet or burning a cross,” Barber says. “It doesn’t matter to me that in Goldsboro, or anywhere else in the state, folks don’t sit around and say, ‘We deliberately took these kids out and put them over there,’ though I believe some of that goes on. When you implement policies that in fact make that happen, it still has the consequence of racism.” The leadership built schools just outside of the city limits and started grafting off parts of the city, Barber says.
With the support of his church congregation, Barber has rallied around the issue. In April 2004, he met with the state congressional black caucus. In August 2004, Concerned Clergy, a group he led, along with the Wayne Count NAACP, filed a complaint with the U.S. Office of Civil Rights that alleged the school board engaged in practices that contributed to the segregation of the school system. Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards responded with a letter to the groups: “I certainly appreciate your frustration that, 50 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the public schools in Goldsboro have yet to be integrated.” Edwards didn’t back down faced with backlash from the white community.
“The NAACP recognizes that the biggest case we’re remembered for is Brown,” Barber says. “That’s the centerpiece of our history. Everybody knows what it did to unravel Plessy v. Ferguson–separate but unequal. If we are not at the forefront of what resegregation does in terms of segregating opportunities, segregating dreams, segregating teachers and the dismantling of children’s ability to function in a global society … what is our purpose?”
Barber’s vocal stance has raised the ire of the local political establishment. Dan Quick, the former chairman of the Wayne County Republican Party, filed a complaint with the IRS alleging that Barber’s church had violated its tax exempt status when it held a political rally on church grounds. Barber dismissed Quick’s complaint as an intimidation tactic and then held a seminar to teach other preachers to skirt the fine line between partisan politics and grass-roots activism.
He’s a veritable power player in Goldsboro. In the 2003 Goldsboro mayoral election, Barber entered as a write-in candidate five days before the election. He lost the election but took 40 percent of the vote. That’s political muscle.
Barber has two years in office before he faces reelection as state NAACP president. If he is to be successful, he’ll have to make fast headway toward his goals of increasing chapter membership and youth involvement and restoring a sense of urgency to the struggle for civil rights.
He plans to lay out a detailed vision at the winter conference on Feb. 25. There will be a session called Civil Rights 101: Back to the Basics, “to remind folks that we are not a banqueting organization–we are a social justice organization,” he says. There will be sessions on economics, segregation, education and incarceration.
To commemorate the April 6 anniversary of the founding of SNCC, the NAACP is planning the Rosa Parks/Ella Baker Symposium at Shaw University in Raleigh, where the organization hopes to train young adults to organize. Barber hopes to send the youth out into communities across the state to organize around educational inequality in low-wealth counties in what he’s calling the 2006 North Carolina Freedom Summer. The summer initiative is inspired by the Mississippi Freedom Summer of 1964. “You have to institutionalize ways of reaching out to the young folks,” Barber says. “We’ll teach the organizing, the theology and the civil rights foundations of Rosa Parks and Ella Baker. We have to pass this on.”
Barber regards civil rights history and, more specifically, the NAACP’s history as a handbook for present-day civil action–something to serve as inspiration for movement, not contentment. It’s hard to find people who question his stance.
“My guess is that Barber is going to be very successful,” says former governor Hunt. “First of all, he works hard. And that is one of the most important ingredients for success. Second, he will stand and work for what he believes is right even if it isn’t popular with his own group. And that is needed today in the civil rights area. Third, he is a very articulate and convincing speaker. I think that will impress people and make them want to join and follow him.”
As for his power to lobby the legislature, Hunt says, “I don’t know about that. But I do know he’ll try. He will not be afraid to go see anybody, testify to any committee. He won’t be somebody they can ignore.”
Durham House Rep. Mickey Michaux stated it differently. “Billy could talk a Klansmen out of his robe,” he says. In some parts of the state, it may take just that. x
To hear the Rev. William Barber’s recent speech to the UNC School of Law, go to www.wchl1360.com/RevBarber.mp3 on the Web site of WCHL-AM.