Reclaim the American Dream

Another Blog Post By

Hedrick Smith

Who Are the New Leaders? Meet William Barber

Raleigh, NC – When people decry the perilous state of American Democracy and declare the urgent need for reforms, they often ask plaintively, ”But where are the leaders going to come from? Where is our new Abraham Lincoln? Where is the new Martin Luther King?”

People forget that Abe Lincoln and MLK did not suddenly blossom full-blown at the peak of their power and influence, as we now remember them. Lincoln matured over the years as a thoughtful young attorney in Springfield, Illinois, and he lost his race for the U.S. Senate in 1858. Martin Luther King Jr. first emerged during the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, eight years before his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963.

So history teaches us that if we want to discover new civic leaders, we must look for them at the grass roots. Their names are generally unfamiliar because in this age of mass communications, they’re rarely given much coverage by the the national media.

However, as a reporter who travels the states, I have met daring, dynamic and dedicated activist leaders practically everywhere. Usually, they’re political amateurs who have joined the battle to win back our democracy because they are fed up with Washington and angry at how billionaire and corporate money is corrupting our politics and how politicians are rigging elections to keep themselves in power.

Barber and the Power of Moral Monday

See a video profile of Rev. Barber in action

One of the most potent, outspoken champions of We the People is the Reverend William Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Barber is an activist preacher in the mold of Martin Luther King Jr. Like Dr. King, Barber employs peaceful protest and civil disobedience as techniques for challenging unfairness in both our politics and our economic system.

Like King, Barber is a riveting speaker, an uncompromising fighter for voting rights and a formidable civic force to be reckoned with. He is the driving engine of a grass roots movement that has already won important victories in his home state of North Carolina, and now he’s launching a broader movement to fight against poverty across the country.

“If you’re going to fix this system, you have to have a movement strategy that shifts the consciousness of the country,” Barber declares, echoing King’s philosophy in the battle for civil and voting rights in the 1960s.

Moral Monday is Barber’s movement. It’s a racially diverse coalition of 93 civic advocacy groups that has rebelled against North Carolina’s racial gerrymandering and restrictive voter photo ID bill. With the state legislature meeting on Mondays, Barber started organizing Monday protests at the capitol. From a handful of kindred souls, he built Moral Mondays into mass demonstrations drawing 10,000, 25,000 even 80,000 people into huge protests against lawmakers enacting what Moral Monday saw as laws that were unfair to minorities, the poor and the working middle class.

Fixing American Democracy from the Bottom Up

Barber has now set his sights well beyond the borders of his home state. But his target is not Washington; it is other states. For Barber believes that if we are going to fix American democracy, change has to come from the bottom up, state by state.

“What I believe is that you surely can’t fix the federal without fixing the state,” Barber says. “I don’t know of any time where movements began in DC. Movements began in Montgomery, Birmingham, Greensboro. It’s like the roots of a tree. What I believe is what Dr. King said when he had the March on Washington. At the end of the day he didn’t say, ‘Come back to DC.’ He said, ‘Go back to Alabama.”

Following the same path of Martin Luther King when his life was cut short in Memphis, Tennessee, Rev. Barber is pressing economic fairness as well as political fairness. He has launched on a Poor People’s Crusade in 25 states, mobilizing support to move a nation, state by state, community by community.