The Black prophetic tradition remains the touchstone of progressive religion and politics in the United States, but it takes several forms. Many of its leading voices do not sound like Martin Luther King Jr., or evoke his memory, or speak in his idioms. But the standout figure in this prophetic tradition today is unmistakably a throwback to MLK.
William Barber stands out today as the symbol of the coalitional, Gospel-based, social-justice activism of the Black social-gospel tradition. Though a throwback, he is forward-looking. He sees no reason why churches cannot mobilize as they did between 1955 and 1965, if only they fix on Jesus and build some good organizations. Barber is earnest, eloquent, relentless, eager to preach, and didactic, often riffing at length on political history. He wears black suits with a white clerical stole reading “Jesus Was a Poor Man,” or full-robed sanctuary regalia, in both cases with a magenta shirt marking his episcopal status. He speaks in carefully parsed sentences, always leaning forward, a visible sign even to those unaware of his story that he has suffered much along the way.
He was born to the struggle, two days after King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Barber’s father, William Barber Sr., was a physics teacher who settled in Indianapolis after graduating from Butler University and marrying a local government clerk. Just before Barber started kindergarten in an integrated Indianapolis public school, his father got a call from his old friend E. V. Wilkins, an educator and civil-rights activist in Plymouth, North Carolina. Wilkins asked Barber Sr. to move back to North Carolina to help in the struggle. The NAACP needed Black teachers and their children to integrate the schools. A year later the Barber family moved into Barber Sr.’s boyhood home in Roper, North Carolina, where his mother still lived.
Barber Jr. cherished his paternal grandmother, who had Mother status in her congregation and was the spiritual anchor of her family. Every Sunday, she visited shut-ins after church. For years, Barber thought she mistook the word “hope” for “help,” as in: “We’ll be back shortly. We’ve got to go and hope somebody.” Later, he realized that “hoping” others in Christ was precisely how his grandmother survived, contradicting a white society that despised her. Barber’s early impression was that his grandmother was singularly extraordinary. As he grew older, he grasped that his father was much like her, except with two master’s degrees.
William Barber Sr. was the real thing, like his mother and son. He could have taught at a Northern university but answered the call to integrate public schools in the South. He could have been a big-steeple preacher, but preached on the side in tiny rural churches of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Coming home to Roper meant that Barber Sr. chose a life of poverty, humility, and service. He rode around in a beat-up pickup truck, bringing his son from one community meeting to another, and everyone called him Doc. When people asked why he brought his kid, Barber Sr. said, “Leave the kid alone; he’s learning.” A conversation at the house about an injustice done to someone would lead to a meeting in a church basement or barbershop. Barber grew up watching his father look out for people, gathering little groups to address their problems, “hoping” them any way he could.
His father preached revivals in small churches across eastern North Carolina, and wherever he went he spread the Gospel and expanded his organizing network. Barber Sr. loved to tell the story of the Disciples of Christ, which fused two early nineteenth-century movements that sought to reform the church by restoring it to the model of the New Testament church. The Barton W. Stone strand derived from a 1901 revival in Cane Ridge, Kentucky. The Thomas and Alexander Campbell strand came from Scotland. Barber Sr. stressed that Black and white Disciples worked and worshiped together, cofounding the Fusion Party after Reconstruction, which united freed slaves and poor whites across North Carolina. There were episodes of heroic moral faith to recount, but this was a sad story, even in Barber Sr.’s revival version, because integrated religion and fusion politics were crushed in the Jim Crow South.
Barber Sr. exhorted Disciples to live up to their early history, without much success. People looked away or turned him off, especially in white congregations, objecting that he asked too much. Barber Jr. recoiled at watching the same reaction over and over. He never doubted that God existed or that his father embodied the ideal, but he didn’t want to be his father, a minister who wasted too much of his spirit on the church. Barber Jr. majored in political science at North Carolina Central University (NCCU), aiming for a law career. He aspired to serve the public as a credentialed big-city professional, scaling up from his father’s world. In his senior year he organized a group that marched to Raleigh to demand more funding for historically Black colleges. The march won ample attention, revealing to Barber that he had the family gift for organizing. Boston University School of Theology offered him a scholarship and Barber nearly accepted it. He still didn’t want to be a minister, but following King to Boston University was hard to turn down.
His grandmother prayed about it, returning with a verdict—Barber didn’t need to go to Boston. A few weeks later he reluctantly consented to her decision. Years later, when Barber told this story, he recalled that St. Paul wanted to go to Spain, but the Spirit prevented him. Going to Boston would have taken Barber away from his North Carolina family, world, and story. In 1984, Barber met an NCCU classmate, Rebecca McLean, at a Jesse Jackson campaign event. After they graduated and married, he enrolled at nearby Duke Divinity School, where he met William C. Turner Jr., a legend at Duke who specialized in pneumatology and Black church spirituality; on the side, Turner served as pastor of Durham’s Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church. To Barber, Turner was a godsend—a friend, mentor, and spiritual father who helped him remember why he was at seminary. Upon graduating in 1989, Barber accepted a call to Fayette Street Christian Church in Martinsville, Virginia. His first plunge into social activism as a pastor was chastening. A group of workers at a local textile factory asked him to support their efforts to start a union. Shortly afterward, the president of the company hosted a breakfast meeting for Black clergy at his corporate office. All it took was an hour of schmoozing and a few reminders of the company’s token philanthropy to get the ministers to oppose the union. A stunned Barber asked himself a seminary question: What would Reinhold Niebuhr say we did wrong? This question practically answered itself. Working for justice in the real world requires real political power. If you don’t have any power, you can’t achieve gains for justice.