He made Moral Mondays a weekly jab at GOP. Now he’s headed to a national stage.

The Rev. William Barber speaks at a news conference last September after a second night of violence in Charlotte following the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.
The Rev. William Barber speaks at a news conference last September after a second night of violence in Charlotte following the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. AP

The Rev. William Barber, who became a polarizing face on North Carolina front pages and TV screens as he led social justice protests to counter a rising conservative tide, will step down in June as state NAACP president.

Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, will organize a new “poor people’s campaign” in Washington, D.C., and 25 other states, much of it based on lessons learned in North Carolina. He’d been state president since 2006.

The charismatic Barber is best known as the architect of the interfaith “Moral Mondays” that drew thousands of protesters – and more than 1,000 arrests – to a General Assembly controlled by Republicans.

Weekly vigils starting in 2013 attacked conservative legislators’ decisions to not expand Medicaid for poor families, to curb unemployment benefits, to enact tax breaks that critics say benefited the wealthy and to change voting rules.

The chief of the General Assembly police dubbed some of the protesters “anarchists.” Former Gov. Pat McCrory blamed “outsiders.”

The protests were part of the broader Forward Together movement led by the NAACP, which won several protracted battles over voter access in the state. They became a model for liberal groups around the country and for left-leaning clergy who say the Bible compels them to oppose legislation that targets the poor, minorities and gays and lesbians.

Francis DeLuca, president of the conservative Civitas Institute, said Barber is good at what he does but noted that voters maintained Republicans’ firm grip on North Carolina’s legislature despite his activism.

“He should act more like a preacher and less like a partisan,” DeLuca said. “He likes to use the gospel and religion when it was benefiting what he was agitating for, but ministers usually use religion in all aspects of their life, not just in some aspects.”

Advocates see Barber as a groundbreaking progressive leader.

The Rev. Rodney Sadler, a Bible professor at Charlotte’s Union Presbyterian Seminary, called Barber a revolutionary leader who brought the state NAACP back to relevance as a civil rights group.

“He has reminded us that we are stronger together than we are apart and that many of the issues progressives have worked on are related to each other,” said Sadler, who is president of the interfaith group MeckMin. “That is part of his genius, to bring people out of their silos.”

Chris Sgro, executive director of the advocacy group Equality NC, said Barber was probably the most outspoken advocate of gay marriage and of transgender rights under House Bill 2, which was repealed this year.

“Dr. Barber’s leadership has been vital to advancing LGBT rights in North Carolina and making LGBT rights a civil rights issue in a way it had not been before,” Sgro said. “I think Dr. Barber saw the harm that was being done to LGBT people and felt like it was incumbent on him as a faith leader to view that as a civil right.”

Anita Earls, a lawyer who has represented the NAACP and is the executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said Barber focused the national group’s attention on the need for activism in North Carolina.

“His work energizing the NAACP to broader activism around the issues they care about has been phenomenal and a huge contribution to the state,” Earls said. “He’s energized various branches around the state to be active and to recognize their ability to make a change.”

She called Barber a unifier on progressive issues, drawing cross-racial support for the Moral Monday protests while drawing the NAACP into issues it hadn’t previously addressed.

Republican targets

Barber didn’t limit himself to Moral Mondays.

He appeared in Charlotte last fall after the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott to demand a federal investigation and police reforms. He was part of an NAACP delegation that joined protests in Ferguson, Mo., after a decision not to file charges against a white police officer in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager.

Republicans have been a consistent target.

Rev. William Barber (center) stands with other protesters at the State Legislative Building on May 5, 2013. Twenty-seven members of the state NAACP chapter and other activists were arrested that day. TRAVIS LONG tlong@newsobserver.com

In 2014, Barber referred to the U.S. Senate’s only African-American Republican, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, as a ventriloquist’s “dummy.” Scott retorted that he was the target of “philosophical bigotry.”

Last July Barber addressed the Democratic National Convention, saying the heart of the country’s democracy was on the line in the November elections.

In February, when the NAACP called for religious conferences, athletic events and musicians to boycott North Carolina over its conservative policies, Barber declared the state “a battleground … for the soul of America.”

State Senate leader Phil Berger, in response, demanded that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper “condemn William Barber’s attempt to inflict economic harm on our citizens, and work toward a reasonable compromise that keeps men out of women’s bathrooms.”

Barber didn’t hold back in his critique of President Donald Trump at a February rally in Raleigh, calling the new president an “extremist, narcissistic con artist.”

Conservative leaders credited Barber, 53, for raising difficult social issues but criticized his sometimes confrontational methods.

“He continually raised issues that we need to keep in front of us and make sure we’re dealing with them positively and actively,” said state Republican chairman Robin Hayes. “Aside from that, his message oftentimes was off the mark. I thought he was inciting people to take action that sometimes was not very productive.

“I would have preferred him or anyone in his role to work as a negotiator instead of an agitator.”

Moral revival

Barber said Wednesday that he wants to focus on the new campaign and “a national call for a moral revival.” He will remain on the NAACP’s national board of directors.

“We need a moral narrative because somewhere along the line we’ve gotten trapped in this left vs. right conversation,” Barber said on a conference call with reporters.

Barber also leads a nonprofit called Repairers of the Breach and said that group, along with the Kairos Center, Union Theological Seminary and others will lead a movement that will concentrate on 25 states and the nation’s capital where voter suppression, poverty and other problems are prevalent, the Associated Press reported.

The groups plan major actions next summer, which would mark the 50th anniversary of the start of the Rev. Martin Luther King’s campaign in 1968.

“We need a narrative shift that’s … not just about the normal discussion of left vs. right and conservative vs. liberal, but really a reset of our deepest values,” Barber said. “Dr. King said in 1968 we needed a moral revolution of values, and we say we need a moral revival.”

The Associated Press contributed.