Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II speaks at the Poor People’s Moral Action Congress in Washington D.C., June 2019 (SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Stock Photo).

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.

William Barber stands out today as the symbol of the coalitional, Gospel-based, social-justice activism of the Black social-gospel tradition.

Barber vowed never to enter another fight for justice without knowing who had his back. But learning a Niebuhrian lesson and being a Niebuhrian were different things. Reading Niebuhr in seminary, Barber had not accepted his claim that the test of faithful action is political effectiveness. If Christian social ethics reduces to Niebuhrian realism, why become a minister? Barber thought of Psalm 94, God asking who will rise up before the wicked. That was biblical faith to him—“leading people who had lost a fight but still knew that the Lord was on their side.” He thought of William Lloyd Garrison, nearly lynched by a respectable mob in 1835. Garrison had no plan or power; all he could do was rail against slavery and hope to find some allies. Barber also thought of Justice John Marshall Harlan of Kentucky, casting the only vote in the U.S. Supreme Court against Plessy v. Ferguson. Harlan was routed in 1896, but the NAACP cited his words for decades, all the way to the Brown decision.

It occurred to Barber that Niebuhr might have developed a better Christian realism had he remained a pastor in Detroit instead of moving to Union Theological Seminary. In Detroit, he had allied with working class whites and Blacks. In New York, consorting with academics and Leftist professionals, Niebuhr’s blind spot about his white privilege grew worse. Barber questioned whether he had a similar blind spot. His negative feelings about white people were justified, weren’t they? Naturally, he trusted Black pastors and workers over white ones. How could it be otherwise? Barber had an inkling of the answer, which worked on him: if he had some white allies, his feelings might be different. Moreover, the Black pastors of Martinsville had folded over one breakfast meeting. If Barber’s mission was to work for justice, he needed all the friends he could get.

He stayed for three years in Martinsville, forming an interracial group against toxic-chemical dumping in a Black neighborhood, which won a small victory, “the crash course in moral leadership that I didn’t know I needed.” Barber returned to North Carolina knowing something about environmental racism and interracial organizing. E. V. Wilkins, still a force in his life, recommended Barber to chair Gov. Jim Hunt’s Human Relations Commission. Barber took the job and enjoyed the work, much of it dealing with employment discrimination and fair housing. He preached on the side while Rebecca Barber worked as a nurse in Durham. In June 1993, Barber preached at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, seventy-eight miles west of Durham. He was not seeking a pastoral call, and definitely not one this far from Durham. Greenleaf members told him he was wrong: God had led him to them.


Barber tried to resist until mid-July, when he relented. Two weeks after he accepted the call, he woke up at home and could not move. Barber’s legs and back were paralyzed. He cried out incredulously to Rebecca, who called an ambulance. The diagnosis was ankylosing spondylitis, an extreme form of arthritis that fuses one’s bones in place. Barber’s neck, hips, and the base of his spine had locked simultaneously. There was no cure; there was only the hope that with intense physical therapy he might regain some mobility.

The pain was excruciating. Barber recoiled at needing constant doses of pain medication to get through a day. His daily trips to the gym were torture, and seemingly futile; when therapists bent his knees, it felt like he was being stabbed with a knife. He fell into depression, spending many nights “just crying in my bed.” Barber could barely speak to his congregants when they visited and could not imagine being their pastor. They urged him to hold on; he was their pastor and they would wait for him. For weeks it was unimaginable to him that he might resume his ministry. The doctors told him he would never walk again; the pain and depression were overwhelming; and he lost the will to get out of bed. One night a woman in a wheelchair visited him. A double amputee, she rebuffed his plea that he couldn’t talk to anyone. She had come to tell him that God was not done with him; God still had work for him to do. The woman prayed for Barber and wheeled herself out. The next morning Barber asked if his mother might be allowed to play hymns in the hospital lobby; maybe he could sing with her. Also, could they tell him the room number of the double amputee? Barber wanted to thank her. The nurses knew of no such patient and could not find one after checking. Barber called her “my amputee angel.”

He learned how to use a walker, and his growing family and congregation rallied around him. Barber left the hospital after three months, commencing his ministry at Greenleaf with a tag team of drivers. His family had already weathered one health crisis, his daughter’s brain surgery for hydrocephalus. This time, his wife and five children forged a new life revolving around Greenleaf Church and Barber’s resolve to bring people together for the work of justice. The pain stabbed him constantly, except in the pulpit. For twelve years he got to the pulpit on his walker, swung it behind him, and leaned on the lectern to preach. Barber savored the irony that Greenleaf was the kind of community he had tried to flee—a small congregation in a small military town consisting of tight-knit families and groups with long local histories. Now the communal closeness worked for him, enabling him to restart his ministry. He often thought of his seminary ethics professor, Stanley Hauerwas, appreciating more than ever the Hauerwas maxim that the vocation of the church is to be the church. What matters is to be faithful to God’s peculiar politics. The only way for people to see that another way is possible is for the church to be the strange, nonviolent, nonconforming community of Christ-followers it is called to be.

But that was only the starting point of Barber’s ministry in Goldsboro. The church does not exist only for itself and it cannot do the work of justice by itself. Barber led Greenleaf to consider what the good news of the Gospel would look like to the poor of Goldsboro. The answer included a community-development corporation called Rebuilding Broken Places that Greenleaf cofounded with other community groups. They enlisted local businesses and secured grant money to build senior housing units, single-family houses, and a freedom school academy. Barber preached that the Spirit blows where it will, through and beyond the church. God inspires ministries serving the entire community.

In 2005, twelve years into his ministry at Greenleaf, Barber awoke one night and walked to the bathroom. He was standing there before it occurred to him that he hadn’t used his walker. Walking back to the bedroom, he asked Rebecca to pinch him; was he dreaming? They laughed out loud at discovering that his body had been healing without their noticing. It happened while Barber was absorbed in nursing their little community from sickness to health. That morning he bought a wooden cane, and never relinquished it afterwards, politely declining nicer ones that people bought for him. The cane was his testimony, like the mat of the man told by Jesus to take up his mat and walk.

Barber scaled up. What if they built a statewide coalition on the Goldsboro model? Running for president of the North Carolina NAACP in the summer of 2005, Barber warned that the NAACP no longer advanced people of color; it had become just the National Association for Colored People, specializing in nice banquets. North Carolina schools had resegregated and 12 percent of North Carolina’s total youth population had no health insurance. Why did the NAACP respond with self-congratulatory nostalgia? Barber offended the banquet luminaries and won the election, appointing a white civil-rights veteran, Al McSurely, to be his legal redress chair. He confirmed that it meant something to pick a white lieutenant; the NAACP had to go back to being seriously activist and interracial, as in its glory days. Barber enlisted Greenleaf in his NAACP work. He had to be driven everywhere, and his brand of ministry did not work if he did it by himself. He never believed, however, that reenergizing the NAACP would be enough to change North Carolina. The NAACP presidency put him in a position to create what was needed: an organization uniting all the social-justice organizations, a new iteration of fusion politics.

The perennial dream of the American Left is to unite all the groups that struggle for social justice. It never was, or is, hard to imagine. What if we all banded together?


The perennial dream of the American Left is to unite all the groups that struggle for social justice. It never was, or is, hard to imagine. What if we all banded together? Every Farmer-Labor-Progressive-Socialist coalition tried to pull it off. Barber thought of Ezekiel, not the Farmer-Labor saga, when he described fusion politics. Ezekiel dreamed of Israel’s divided tribes uniting in Jerusalem; henceforth, the Lord would be there. Barber listed fourteen “justice tribes” of North Carolina, calling them in December 2006 to a meeting in the state capital. Representatives of sixteen organizations showed up and told each other: there are more of us than of them; let’s change the narrative by working together. The group formulated a fourteen-point agenda, organized a People’s Assembly in February 2007 at the state capital, and adopted the name McSurely had suggested, the Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ). Barber fretted that this name might sound like an exaggeration until five thousand people turned out. Barber stressed that HKonJ was not liberal, conservative, Democratic, or Republican. It was for all that is good and right, such as voting rights, criminal justice, labor rights, health care, and immigrants’ rights. In 2007 it went all out on one issue that impacted all the others: voting rights.

For a while the new coalition was quietly effective. The North Carolina NAACP and HKonJ worked closely together, being led by the same two people, Barber and McSurely. They won a crucial victory when the state legislature expanded early voting and allowed same-day registration, just in time for a thing of beauty in the 2008 election: “Souls to the Polls.” Black churchgoers were driven to early-voting sites after worship services ended. Souls to the Polls rode on the excitement generated by the Obama candidacy, playing a key role in turning North Carolina barely blue in the presidential election. The expansion of voting rights in 2007 added 185,000 new voters to the electorate in a state that Obama won by just over 100,000 votes. That ended Barber’s quiet days of power-building. The backlash against Obama and Barber was furious, incredulous, and determined. How the hell had North Carolina gone for Obama? Why had they treated this Barber character as a buffoon?

Barber went swiftly from being derided as “Reverend Bar-B-Q” to receiving death threats. He told friends it was a measure of how strong they had become. In January 2010, the political Right won a colossal victory in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled by 5 to 4 that corporations and special interests have a “free speech” right to pump as much money as they want into elections in complete secrecy. The fallout in North Carolina was devastating. Art Pope, a right-wing kingmaker who inherited a retail chain from his father, played the leading role in turning North Carolina’s state legislature flaming red in the 2010 midterm elections. “Big government” was vilified for coddling the “undeserving poor”—always code for Black and brown people. Barber noticed that much of the right-wing money went into culture wars funneled through foundations. HKonJ did win a few more victories during the early Obama years, most notably a Racial Justice Act guaranteeing an appeal to every death-row inmate victimized by racial bias in the sentencing process. But there was no denying that the Republican Right was winning.

The winter of 2012–2013 was the nadir of the Obama years in North Carolina, where Obama lost the state despite winning reelection. HKonJ convened its seventh coalition People’s Assembly in February 2013 with a battered but defiant spirit. It confronted right-wing efforts to block the expansion of Medicaid to half a million poor North Carolinians, overturn the Racial Justice Act, require photo ID for voting, and eliminate same-day voter registration. The group responded by forming the Forward Together Moral Movement in North Carolina, advocating a five-part platform of economic justice, educational equality, universal health care, criminal-justice reform, and voting rights. On the evening of April 29, 2013, a Monday, it staged a protest outside the doors of the North Carolina state legislature on Jones Street. Barber said they opposed the “avalanche of extremist policies” being debated by the legislature, and they had written numerous letters demanding to be heard. The time had come to put their bodies on the line. Seventeen protesters were promptly arrested for annoying the legislators and the Moral Monday campaign was launched.

The following Monday, several hundred people showed up to demonstrate and thirty entered the state legislature building to get arrested. Barber said the Forward Together Moral Movement already had a legal strategy to challenge the new policies in court, and an organizing strategy to work across the entire state. The Moral Monday witness had its own work and purpose: to respond to the crisis of American democracy with acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. Moral Mondays struck a cultural nerve. The crowds grew and the media showed up to cover the ritual of protests and arrests. The fourth Moral Monday, on May 20, drew a thousand protestors and fifty-seven got arrested. The following month, in Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, claiming its coverage formula was based on outdated data.

North Carolina’s Republican legislators, no longer restrained by the Voting Rights Act, threw all their voter-suppression ideas into one bill. The Moral Monday crowds swelled to five thousand people per week. After the legislature passed its voter-suppression bill, it went home, but the demonstrations kept going through July. Barber declared on the twelfth Moral Monday, July 22: “The whole world can see through your lies, legislature. The whole world can see through your lies about voter fraud and voter integrity. We know what you are up to. Maybe you are stuck in the nineteenth century, but we’re not. Maybe you are stuck in Jim Crow and the Old South, but we’re not.” This fight, he declared, was on.

Sometimes Barber had to police the “moral” in Moral Monday: “We don’t have to curse people to be right.” In a moral movement, he said, you aim to make friends of your enemies. All great movements arise from a deep moral wellspring, not from attacking people. Barber knew why his listeners were angry, depressed, and hurting, because he was, too. He said he wanted his sons to realize why he was constantly on the road, trying to change the world. He wanted them to believe it was still possible.

Moral Mondays was a spectacular success. It grew week by week, operating in revival style, replete with evangelistic sermons and an altar call. The revival format did not stop it from feeling interreligious, with sermons by Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clerics who took turns inspiring the crowd. Barber had to bring his own A-game every week just to compare favorably with a slew of very able preacher-orators. When reporters asked where this movement was heading, Barber explained that Moral Mondays was a revival witness and civil-disobedience campaign, not a movement. Forward Together was the movement.


They kept Moral Mondays going for thirteen weeks, culminating with rallies across North Carolina on July 29, 2013, which served as a kind of dress rehearsal for a mass march in Raleigh the following February. Barber said they were trying to birth a Third Reconstruction. The First Reconstruction led to interracial fusion alliances that were viciously attacked by white backlash movements. The Second Reconstruction was the civil-rights movement. The Third Reconstruction must aim higher than the expansion of voting rights achieved by the Voting Rights Act, winning a constitutional amendment that guarantees the same voting rights in every state. In 2014, Barber established an educational center called Repairers of the Breach to equip leaders for state-based coalitions. It teaches organizers to conduct grassroots statewide campaigns and to use moral language to frame policy issues.

The Gospel, he insists, is about lifting up the poor.

After Trump was elected in 2016, Barber insisted that no single defeat changes everything. He said it in January 2017, speaking at Washington Hebrew Congregation: “We will never, never, never turn back. One election can’t turn us back. A loudmouth can’t turn us back.” In 2018 he launched the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (PPC). It took up the unfinished business of its namesake, fifty years later, building toward “Forty Days of Action” in May and June of 2018. Barber teamed up as codirector with white Presbyterian minister Liz Theoharis, a New Testament scholar who earned her PhD at Union Theological Seminary in 2014 and directed Union’s Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice. Barber and Theoharis aimed to build a network of locally focused chapters led by poor people themselves, which ruled out partnerships with national progressive organizations. Barber and Theoharis reasoned that they couldn’t call it a grassroots movement if they linked up with national labor unions, think tanks, and advocacy groups. The new PPC kicked off a national tour in Marks, Mississippi, and proceeded to Detroit, Selma, Harlan County (Kentucky), Central Valley (California), and Grays Harbor (Washington), building up to forty consecutive days of action in twenty-five state capitals and other sites. Sometimes they drew encouraging crowds and sometimes they were brutally disappointed.

At Union there was constant anxiety about the size of the crowds and whether PPC was taking off. The Forty Days of Action was up-and-down, like the buildup tour. In 2019, Barber and Theoharis changed their strategy, planning a big march in D.C. for the following year, which required alliances with national organizations. Cosponsors came aboard, including major unions such as AFSCME, the American Postal Workers Union, and the Association of Flight Attendants. When COVID-19 struck, Barber and Theoharis revamped the march as a virtual rally on June 20, 2020. Driven online, it boasted 248 cosponsors and attracted over two million livestream viewers, calling for racial justice, single-payer health care, worker rights, free tuition at public colleges, an assault-weapons ban, and criminal-justice reforms.

The PPC rally provided the strongest evidence in years that the religious Left is still out there to be gathered and mobilized, even as Barber and Theoharis refuse to put it that way. They stick to a Christian Gospel message fixed on the poor. Barber accepted the tradeoffs of moving from a focus on North Carolina to a national stage. Then, in December 2022, he accepted the directorship of the new Center for Public Theology and Public Policy at Yale Divinity School, an educational ministry enterprise funded by the Ford Foundation and the Fetzer Institute. He retired from Greenleaf Christian Church but continues as president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.

Barber’s core sermon pairs Psalm 118 and Luke 4—the rejected stone has become the cornerstone, and Jesus was anointed to preach good news to the poor. The Gospel, he insists, is about lifting up the poor. The soul of America cannot be saved without remembering what the Gospel is about:

I believe right now that the soul of America is at stake. The soul of the nation cannot be saved, cannot be sturdy, cannot be properly put together unless the rejected lead the revival and become the chief cornerstones. This has always been true at the heart of our story. There is no way to mend the flaws of the nation and be one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all unless the rejected are at the center. We can’t find our way out of the mess we’re in with a left focus or a right focus. We’ve got to refocus on those who have been rejected. 

Published in the October 2023 issue: View Contents

Gary Dorrien teaches at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia University. His many books include his first volume on the Black social-gospel tradition, The New Abolition, which won the Grawemeyer Award, and his second volume, Breaking White Supremacy, which won the American Library Association Award. This article is adapted from volume three, A Darkly Radiant Vision, published by Yale University Press. Used by permission.

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