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African-American leader inspires protests, arrests

July 27, 2015
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In this Wednesday, June 24, 2015 photo, Rev. William Barber speaks at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. His supporters describe Barber, 51, as a leader the likes of which the country hasn't seen since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
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In this Wednesday, June 24, 2015 photo, Rev. William Barber speaks at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. His supporters describe Barber, 51, as a leader the likes of which the country hasn't seen since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

GOLDSBORO, North Carolina (AP) — The Rev. William Barber walks gingerly with a cane, in a hunched-over posture, yet here he is on a recent Monday, leading 3,500 protesters down a street on a hot summer day.

He says God must have a sense of humor to call on a man who has such difficulty walking to lead “Moral Monday” protests when the North Carolina state Legislature is in session for the past two years, since Republicans took control of the Statehouse and governor’s office and passed a restrictive new voting law.

Barber’s speeches and throwback tactics are in vogue following several deaths of black men at the hands of white police officers and a renewed debate over American race relations after the massacre of nine black churchgoers in South Carolina; police describe the suspect as a white supremacist.

“What I know is what we are in is a time when we can’t afford to be silent,” Barber said, perched against a tall stool in his office at his church in Goldsboro, where he works as a minister. “We are battling for the soul and consciousness of this country.”

Barber is just one African-African leader schooled in both religion and politics working to create a “New South,” in a region with complex traditions that is undergoing dramatic changes. Another was Clementa Pinckney, both a state legislator and a pastor who was gunned down at the black church in Charleston. Pinckney was eulogized by Barack Obama, who captured the traditionally Republican state of North Carolina when he became the first African-American president.

Barber, however, doesn’t hold elected office and operates more like an old-school civil rights leader, working outside the political system and taking his message to the streets and courts. In North Carolina, more than 1,000 demonstrators have been arrested for civil disobedience since Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP civil rights group, started the protests.

The demonstrations have spread several other states and given Barber some notoriety. Supporters wear “I went to jail with Rev. Barber” buttons. Barber, 51, has been jailed five times himself.

Detractors accuse Barber of grandstanding. His supporters say his leadership is reminiscent of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and other leaders during the 1960s civil rights movement, which led to the end of legal segregation in the South and the landmark Voting Rights Act, which still protects minorities’ voting rights.

The protests target conservative politics and cover everything from labor laws to women’s rights, gay rights, the environment and North Carolina’s new voting law. The NAACP is fighting the law in court, saying it has weakened minorities’ voting power and threatens the federal Voting Rights Act.

Scholar and civil rights activist Cornel West, who is friends with Barber, describes him as “the only King-like figure we have in the country right now.”

“I have just been overwhelmed by his intellectual and spiritual power,” West said.

Barber’s work is inspired by his parents, who helped integrate white and black public schools in North Carolina, where his father was an educator and minister. As a youth, Barber was the first African-American elected as the sole student body president of his high school; previously, a white student and a black student had shared the position. He went on to earn degrees in both public policy and theology.

The NAACP doesn’t pay him for his work as state chapter president or as chair of the political action committee of the organization’s national board. He has no set speaker’s fee, although he sometimes gets paid for speeches.

He and his wife have five children; because of death threats, he shields them from reporters.

His difficulty walking is the result of an inflammatory disease that bends his neck that gives him a hunched-over appearance.

He sometimes speaks thoughtfully and quietly, quoting the Bible, the U.S. Constitution and poetry. Or he might jump and shout.

The best-known criticism of Barber came two years ago, just after the Moral Monday protests had started, from a state senator who wrote a column referring to the movement as “Moron Mondays.”

More recently, state Republican Party leaders set up a website accusing Barber of taking money from unions. Barber does speak to unions and supports their efforts.

Barber resists calls to raise his national profile, believing change in the U.S. starts in the South. He’ll stay in North Carolina and fight, just as his parents did.

“We can overcome the crippling realities of our current moment because when you come together, things can be changed,” he said. “This kind of prophetic hope is not the kind that sets you to peace; it’s the kind that stirs you to action.”

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Martha Waggoner can be reached at http://twitter.com/mjwaggonernc .

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