Well America, what the Rev. William Barber II stopped by the Democratic National Convention Thursday night to tell you was just about the most engaging version of everything that every other speaker touched on over the course of the four-day event.
What he delivered – eight years after this brand of liberation theology took a beating from corners of the conservative commentariat – was evidence of a long tradition of liberal, religious patriotism. It was a call to action that, in Barber’s view, serves this cause — an articulation of a liberal and patriotic philosophy with what Barber said was the moral force to shock and resuscitate the heart of the nation.
“We are being called like our forefathers and foremothers to be the moral defibrillators of our time,” Barber said.
The call brought most of the audience in the convention hall to its feet.
Barber, a preacher who described himself as the son of a preacher there to represent no particular organization, is the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, president of the North Carolina NAACP, a member of the organization’s national board, chair of the NAACP’s Legislative Political Action Committee and one of the primary organizers of Moral Mondays.
Moral Mondays are, as The New Yorker magazine described them, a now-regular set of progressive activist vigils held in Raleigh. There, mostly black civil rights activists from poor coastal communities like Barber and mostly white and wealthy environmentalists from towns like Chapel Hill have joined forces with all kinds of progressive activists, with a constancy that has drawn national attention.
The coalition and the Monday rallies they stage have expanded from just a few dozen people to thousands. Those who participate have been drawn to sustained action by a Republican revolution in the Tar Hell state.
The governor and many of the lawmakers now in power have made real a range of laws designed to make abortions more difficult to access, policies that opponents say make it more difficult to vote, and a scale down of state environmental and labor regulations. The conservative state government rejected the so-called Obamacare Medicaid expansion and repealed a law that commuted death sentences in that state to life without parole if a court found that race had shaped the initial decision to hand down a death order.
Barber, a man rarely seen without his cleric’s collar and an increasingly well-known face in North Carolina, also generated headlines in April when he was booted off of a plane headed from Washington to Raleigh. Barber, who lives with a fused spine due to a form of arthritis, makes a practice of purchasing two seats to accommodate his needs when he flies.
The sight of of a large black man with two seats and a disability prompted two passengers seated behind Barber to engage in what Barber told reporters was a loud conversation that included a declaration that one passenger “had problems with those people.”
Unable to turn around due to his fused spine, Barber stood to speak to the passengers. The passengers complained that Barber was menacing. The flight staff declared him disruptive and the pilot took the plane back to D.C. where Barber was forced to deplane. The North Carolina Republican Party issued a statement blaming Barber for delaying the flight.
It’s no wonder that Barber’s convention speech covered everything from wages and labor conditions to guns, homeland security, LGBTQ rights and voting. It covered concerns about policing and criminal justice reform, immigration, militarization and the profits thereof.
But, what Barber did in the attention-capturing language and cadence of an evangelical preacher, was more advanced than a recitation of issues and concerns. It was more complicated than a than a list of ideas and policy needs.
Like all calls to revolution there were parts of what Barber said which many Americans and some Democrats in the convention hall will not agree. A certain Fox News host with an alternative read of many facts will almost certainly take issue. But Barber’s remarks were delivered with the force and lyricism of someone who wages regular war with words. So, they may not easily fade into the ether.
A few examples from Butler’s remarks which seemed to hang in the air:
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“I am worried by the way that faith is cynically used by some to serve hate, fear, racism and greed.”
“Listen to the ancient chorus in which deep calls unto deep.”
“Pay people what they deserve, share your food with the hungry. Do this and then your nation shall be called a repairer of the breach.”
“Jesus, a brown-skin Palestinian Jew, called us to preach good news to the poor, the broken and the bruised and all those who are made to feel unaccepted.”
“Some issues are not left or right or liberal versus conservative. They are right versus wrong.”
“We need to embrace our deepest moral values ... for revival at the heart of our democracy. ... When we love the Jewish child and the Palestinian child, the Muslim and the Christian and the Hindu and the Buddhist and those who have no faith but they love this nation, we are reviving the heart of our democracy.”
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What Barber was all but saying in an address built around a metaphor of the heart and national health is that in an election where so much of the oxygen, the energy and the attention has rested with the Republican ticket, those who believe in something different have a moral obligation to get about the business of defeating that party’s nominee, Donald Trump.
When Barber had said his piece, he turned to a portion of the hymn, “Revive Us Again.”
Revive us again;
Fill each heart with Thy love;
May each soul be rekindled
With fire from above.
And with that, Barber walked away.