The Reverend William J. Barber, II, is only 50, but he walks with a limp and a cane, and he perpetually leans forward, as if dragging a loaded sledge. On Monday, wearing a red stole and a cross made from twigs, Barber set out from the First Baptist Church, in downtown Raleigh, trailed by some forty members of the clergy. Two blocks away, across the State Capitol grounds, more than 1,500 North Carolinians were shuffling and shouting.
On his way to that crowd, Barber walked past war memorials and up the steps of the State Capitol building. Built with slave labor in the 1830s, the squat Greek revival structure now houses the governor’s offices. Breaking off from the group, Barber took an unexplained detour through the Capitol, emerged a few minutes later, and crossed Edenton Street (where, this past Saturday, I walked by an SUV with a Confederate flag sticker and a vanity plate that read “4THE CSA”). Back in his swirl of clergy, he stepped onto the podium before an interfaith, multiracial, trans-North Carolinian, multigenerational group of Southerners that has become, on certain evenings, Barber’s loyal congregation. The new round of Moral Mondays had begun.
The first Moral Monday took place in April 2013, when police arrested a group of 17 North Carolinians, including Barber, as they protested the state’s new voter ID bill, which Barber on Monday called “the worst voter suppression bill we’ve seen since Jim Crow.” Most of those arrested were clergy. The next Monday, more protesters showed up. By the end of the summer, more than 900 North Carolinians had been handcuffed for trespassing in the legislative building.
Since the beginning of 2013, North Carolina has had a Republican supermajority in both its House and Senate. Progressive, NAACP-backed protesters found much to motivate them as the summer grew hotter: cuts to education spending and unemployment benefits, and the legislature’s refusal of a Medicaid expansion that would have covered 500,000 uninsured North Carolinians. When, this past February, the NAACP sponsored a Moral March in Raleigh—on a Saturday—tens of thousands of people showed up (estimates varied from 15,000 to more than 80,000). It was the biggest civil rights march in the South since Selma.
The name “Moral Monday” evokes Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, and the entire brand of tribal, right-wing politics that has all but defined Christian activism in the South for a generation. Moral Mondays draw on an older flavor of religious politics, one more concerned with poverty and justice than with thou-shalt-nots. “We’re going to change North Carolina for the long haul. We’re going to change the South for the long haul,” Barber told a small assembly in the First Baptist Church shortly before the protest. In the past year, smaller Moral Monday protests have taken place in South Carolina and in Georgia, where police arrested 39 protesters.
Barber lives in Goldsboro, N.C. The president of the state chapter of the NAACP and the architect of Moral Mondays, he’s also the pastor of a small church, and he lards his speech with references to Micah and the Psalms. When he raises his voice to a raspy crescendo, he has that rare ability to freeze a crowd, and then vitalize it, all at once—a verbal strobe light. Other speakers on Monday tried to drum up some call-and-response in their sermonizing, with mixed results. But when Barber cried that “There is an army rising” and laid down a mandate for his assembled multitudes, they were right with him:
“We will never,”
“never,” (he growled it)
“never—” (the growl deepened)
“—stay silent in the face of the injustice,” he roared, face fixed.
The crowd clapped.
“Somebody scream,” said Barber, retreating for a moment into his swirl of clergy.
On Monday, Barber’s was an ecumenical congregation. Pullen Memorial Baptist Church, in Raleigh, rallied its congregants under a plain white sign. Close to a dozen Episcopal vicars and deacons, along with their bishop, relaxed on the steps of the North Carolina Museum of History. Unitarian Universalists seemed to be everywhere. Geoff Frank, of Chapel Hill, stood in the middle of the crowd and waved the banner of the United Church of Christ until an NAACP volunteer asked him to move; he was blocking too many people’s views. The Carolina Jews for Justice had an even larger banner, but nobody bothered them.
Sandra Webb came to the protest from Apex, N.C., a Raleigh suburb. A Methodist, she was carrying a sign that cited the first few verses of the tenth chapter of Isaiah: “Woe to those who make unjust laws, / to those who issue oppressive decrees/…What will you do on the day of reckoning, / when disaster comes from afar?” Webb, freckled and soft-spoken, talked about how her work with homeless people, part of an interfaith initiative, had inspired her activism. I ask her why she chose to quote Isaiah. “They’re making unjust laws,” she said of the General Assembly, “and they’ll have to answer for them.”
Nearby was Jennifer Manis, a campus minister at the Holy Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Raleigh. “Jesus came to set free the prisoner and set loose the chains of the bonded and tell the rich, ‘Hey, it’s time to share.’ So if I follow Jesus, that’s what I’m called to do,” she said. “I can’t imagine being a Christian and not being here.”
THE THURSDAY BEFORE the protest, Barber and a group of clergy had gathered to invite Republican leaders to the first Moral Monday, which they described as a “love feast” at which, they imagined, Democrats and Republicans could break bread together. “Pharaoh had a supermajority, but God led a moral movement through the Red Sea destroying the armies of the proud,” read Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a pastor in Durham. “We invite you to join us for a love feast on May 19th, because we do not want to see you swept away when justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream,” he continued, quoting the Book of Amos.
For a young Southerner, it can be thrilling to hear language like this, with its evocation of verses and stories so beloved of the great Civil Rights generation. Thrilling, at first, and then saddening, because the very causes that motivate the Moral Monday protesters are causes that those earlier activists hoped to eliminate: growing segregation in schools, the restriction of voter access, and the persistence of poverty in the South. Nationally, the income gap between black and white households has grown since 1967.
One starts to feel, hearing Wilson-Hartgrove or Barber speak of the Exodus from Egypt, not just the timelessness of the story, but the timelessness of the pain to which it speaks so well. And this, perhaps, is the paradoxical challenge of faith-inflected politics: to inspire in us a belief that change is possible, even as it reminds us that some things don’t change.
Suffice it to say that the governor did not attend the love feast. The protesters, though, did bring bread. They passed the bread around, and they prayed. “This is not a Christian liturgy, or a Muslim liturgy,” said Barber. “It’s a liturgy about a love feast, a sign that God has made us one people.” Pastors and a rabbi, read out lines about sharing food, drawing on various traditions, with each reading connected by a ponderous liturgical refrain: “Let us break bread together, marching on.”
And then into the legislative building they marched, two-by-two, mouths duct-taped in protest of the General Assembly’s recent attempt to tighten restrictions on protestors. Barber led his congregation up the building’s red-carpeted staircase, to the third-floor atrium that overlooks both chambers of the legislature. He walked slowly, tilting over his cane, dragging that invisible sledge, lit up by news cameras and followed by a line so long that it took more than an hour to file through the building.
In the empty House chamber a janitor, wearing a faded olive worksuit, was slowly polishing the wood and brass of the Speaker’s dais. Across the atrium, the Senate chambers filled up for a brief session. As the senators bowed their heads for an opening prayer, introduced a new crop of pages, and began the evening’s business, the protestors filed by, hundreds upon hundreds, totally quiet, pressing their signs up to the glass—signs about fracking, and women’s rights, and health care reform. “Jesus wept … and so do we.” “In-state tuition for dreamers.” “God wants justice and compassion for the poor.” The senators didn’t look up. One young page, slackjawed and ruddy-cheeked, did—often—with something akin to dread.
Outside, on the legislative plaza, egged on by Barber, the protesters started dancing.
Michael Schulson is a freelance writer in Durham, North Carolina.