Rev. William Barber speaking in front of the Capitol Building in Raleigh on April 24, 2023. Credit: Jenny Warburg

A decade ago, Rev. William Barber II led 17 people in a peaceful protest of the Republican-dominated North Carolina legislature, which had begun a campaign of injustice through laws halting Medicaid expansion, cutting unemployment benefits, and restricting voting rights, among other things. 

In a deliberate act of civil disobedience, the small cohort gathered inside the state legislative building and was later led out in handcuffs. The protests, dubbed Moral Mondays, quickly gained momentum. Within a month, hundreds were gathering in downtown Raleigh to protest the actions of the legislature. Barber, then president of the state’s NAACP, had created a movement that energized and empowered people of all races, religions, and political affiliations. 

Today, the Moral Monday movement has spread nationwide, and Barber is calling for a recommitment to the cause. Protests are still being organized through Repairers of the Breach, which trains communities in moral movement building, and the Poor People’s Campaign, a “national call for moral revival.” Recently, Barber was also invited to Yale University to found a new Center for Public Theology and Public Policy. 

This week, on the 10th anniversary of the first Moral Monday protest, we asked Barber about how the movement started, why morality should be a part of policy discussions, and what’s changed since 2013. 

INDY WEEK: What triggered the Moral Monday protests? 

REV. WILLIAM BARBER: In 2012, Tea Party [politicians] won a supermajority [in North Carolina] because the federal government … refused to strike down the 2010 gerrymandering plan. A supermajority of extremists got elected not because they got the most votes … but because redistricting stacked, packed, and bleached districts in such a way that it limited the impact of the progressive vote.

I remember meeting with [then governor] Pat McCrory and saying that it didn’t matter if he was Republican. If he would address the issues that were facing North Carolinians, like health care, if he wouldn’t attack the immigrant and LGBT communities, if he would work to pass a living wage … we would work with him. He made no promises. 

In 2013, we had this massive gathering in the street and we put our agenda out there. The first thing the new General Assembly does is, in 15 minutes, without any debate, without allowing any doctors to talk, they denied Medicaid expansion. Then, they attacked unemployment. Then, they attacked the LGBTQI community. Then … same-sex marriage, public education. And after they did all of that, they said, “We’re going to go after voting rights.”

They put together a voter suppression bill in the North Carolina State Senate …. It had about 40 changes, including rolling back same-day registration and early voting. It was at that point that we said, “Wait a minute.” Every crucifixion needs a witness who says, “This is not right.” That’s when we started Moral Mondays. 

Moral Mondays spread from North Carolina across the nation—did you ever think the protests would become so big?

When we started, we were planning on just going in [for] one day. Seventeen people ended up going in with placards that had quotes from the Constitution, from scripture, and they arrested us. The first person they arrested was a woman in a wheelchair; she had cerebral palsy. She was there because she said our state blocking Medicaid expansion is immoral. We knew that we had to challenge what was going on, because it was wrong. 

Little did we know—just like Rosa Parks didn’t know when she sat down on the bus—that it would spark the largest sustained effort in the South at a state house. Nor did we realize when we started that the next week more would come … from all over the state. 

They were Black, white, brown, Native, Asian. There were Republicans there, Democrats there. We went on for years. We couldn’t vote, we knew they would outvote us, but we said, “Every Monday, we’re going to make it clear we’re not going to let them do it in the dark.”

What effect did the Moral Monday campaign have?

Just after the first 14 weeks, Pat McCrory’s [approval ratings] had dropped from 60 percent down to about 39 percent. Public Policy Polling directly credits the work of Moral Monday with the unseating of Pat McCrory and his extremist ideals.

A few weeks ago, The New York Times said that if it had not been for Moral Monday, you might not have a Roy Cooper. And if you didn’t have a Roy Cooper, you wouldn’t have North Carolina being one of the few Southern states where a governor was able to expand Medicaid, which then benefitted hundreds of thousands of people. It was the activists that kept the issue alive and wouldn’t let it go. 

The work of the movement protected our voting rights. As a legal strategy, we filed a lawsuit against the massive voter suppression deal. We were able to defeat rollbacks of same-day registration, early voting. We were able to defeat photo ID. 

We won that case, and we set a precedent for how to win voter suppression cases in the South. Because when we filed our case, the plaintiffs were every race, creed, and color. We had Black plaintiffs, we had white plaintiffs … Jewish people, young folk, and veterans as plaintiffs, because we wanted to show that voter suppression hurts us all. 

What do you think is so powerful about the Moral Monday movement?

The movement has shown people that even when you’re in the minority, in terms of the vote, you don’t have to be quiet and sit down. Part of what the movement has done is put [legislative records] before the people so that [candidates] are not able to sell what I call “a bag of goods.” There’s a statement that says telling the truth in a time of lies is revolutionary in and of itself. A moral movement, bringing people together around these critical moral challenges, is itself revolutionary. 

Even when the extremists led the General Assembly, we proved that you don’t have to just sit down and take it, that you can continue to stand and to struggle and cry and fight together.

One-third of the electorate now is poor and/or low-wealth. So if you work to mobilize and educate poor and low-wealth voters—help them understand what their power is—many of these states are not red states. They’re unorganized states, they’re uninspired states. That’s why Moral Monday is still needed … because we got to do this hard work.

People don’t often talk about morality and policy—why is it important to look at it through this lens?

Every step in American history has required, at some point, a movement that challenges injustices not on policy but on moral principles. The civil rights movement was a moral movement. The abolition movement, the labor movement.

One of the greatest models of transformational movement is what happened in the first Reconstruction—when former slaves, former free Black people, and poor whites came together and formed fusion coalitions to rewrite the constitutions of Southern legislatures. 

They didn’t do it because they were Republican or because they were Democrat …. They framed their movement in moral terms. They said, “If we say we hold these truths to be self-evident and all men are created equal, then we have to look at every policy and question whether it does that.”

Looking at [policy] through the lens of our deepest religious values, of moral values, deepens our ability to address issues. The language of left versus right is too puny, it’s too small. We have to say, “Some things are just wrong.” A hundred and forty million people who live in poverty, 87 million people who are underinsured or uninsured, massive attempts to suppress the vote—it’s wrong. Fundamental human rights require that we don’t let this exist, and we have to challenge these injustices.

Oftentimes there are forces that want to limit the moral discussion to things like abortion and where you stand on gay rights and same-sex marriage. They don’t want to deal with the moral issue when it comes to banking and tax breaks and living wages, when in fact budgets are moral documents.

You are now the founding director of Yale University’s new Center for Public Theology and Public Policy—what is the goal of the center?

The main thing is training seminarians and undergraduates on how to do public theology. Creating a fellowship think tank, if you will, for looking at and producing policy rooted in our deepest moral, constitutional, and religious values. It’s about where, because of our deep faith, we stand on the critical issues of our day.

And if you’re not a person of faith, but you believe in the “moral arc of the universe,” or if you believe in the value of the Constitution, then when you look at a piece of public policy, you don’t ask, “Is it right or is it left? Is it Democrat or is it Republican?” … You ask, “Does it establish justice? … Does this promote general welfare? Does it ensure equal protection under the law, regardless of creed, regardless of sexuality?” 

If it doesn’t meet those standards, then we challenge those kinds of laws as being immoral. They are far less than what our deepest religious and constitutional values call us to be. 

What is the state of the Moral Monday movement today?

This past June, over 150,000 people of every race, creed, and color joined in the Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington and to the Polls. Out of that, we had a massive voter mobilization that touched more than 8 million voters in 15 states. In those states that had success among progressives, the impact of these poor nowhere voters coming out was major. 

What we’re seeing now is an attempt to roll back again. So that’s why, on the 10th anniversary, we are not just having an anniversary; we are having a recommitment. Because even with all that has been done, North Carolina still has over 4 million people who are poor and low-wealth. North Carolina still is not paying people a living wage of at least $15 an hour. So we still have work to do.

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