Let’s Try a New Approach to Overcome the Politics of Division
a review of The Third Reconstruction: How A Moral Movement Is Overcoming The Politics of Division and Fear by Reverend Dr. William J Barber II with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).
This is a short autobiography of Rev. Barber as well as his recollections on the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina. There was an extreme right-wing takeover of the North Carolina legislature in 2013. The Koch brothers, ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and local billionaires were behind the takeover. Their extremist agenda was the defunding state government through a flat tax, the denial of federally funded health care to half a million North Carolinians, the rejection of federal unemployment benefits for 170,000 individuals, cuts to public education, deregulation of environmentally destructive industries, a constitutional amendment to deny equal protection to LGBTQ citizens and the worst voter-suppression bill America had seen for a half century. (p.xiv) The Moral Monday movement organized 11 weeks of demonstrations in Raleigh where people were arrested after the extremist legislators refused to meet with their constituents. A total of a thousand people were arrested over the 11 weeks. A week after the North Carolina Legislature adjourned, 20,000 rallied in Raleigh. Moral Mondays got national press.
A bit of a flash back: we learn that between preaching at two conservative Christian churches, one in Virginia and the next in North Carolina, Rev Barber worked as an organizer for an NGO focusing on state government. Then after accepting the call to pastor in Greensboro, North Carolina, he stood for election in 2005 to the position of volunteer president of the North Carolina NAACP, using the slogan from “banquets to battle”. He won and began traveling the state during the week, returning to preach on Sunday.
Rev Barber is above all a talented organizer and a visionary “In a year of almost non-stop travel, I learned something important about North Carolina: there wasn’t a huge crowd standing together in any one place, but if you added up all the different groups who were standing for their justice issue, the potential base for a coalition was large – bigger, I thought, than anything North Carolina had ever seen before.” (pp 48-49) At the initial workshop, the potential coalition partners were asked to list the issue that was most important to them on one sheet of paper, and on another, they were asked to list the forces standing in their way. What they found was, despite different issues, the same forces were opposing them all. And they realized they far outnumbered their opponents.
The coalition worked together for more than 6 1/2 years before Moral Mondays. They learned to trust each other. They took on and won several causes including a union organizing campaign, the case of a black man falsely accused of murder, and the defeat of an effort to re-segregate and privatize a school system.
The lessons the coalition learned as they worked on the causes they took up are revealing. For example, before they took up the effort to support the union organizing in a large hog slaughtering plant, the stories in the media and in the community were of the worker’s interests versus the companies’ interest. But by getting local clergy and community leaders all over North Carolina to stand with the workers, they were able to change the narrative. They made the worker’s low pay and difficult jobs into a moral cause. Then the worker’s were able to get a contract, a raise and improved working conditions. About the same time, they discovered that the right-wing billionaires in North Carolina spent most of their money on “cultural infrastructure” like think-tanks and media, rather than election campaigns. Thus, the coalition realized how important it was to control the conversation and frame the issues.
Rev. Barber has an impressive knowledge of American history and uses it to inform his approach. During the First Reconstruction, after the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of slaves, when the Federal Army was still policing voting rights in the old Confederacy, a Fusion Party in 1868, blacks and whites working together, won enough seats in the state legislature to rewrite the North Carolina constitution. They were able to make a significant addition to Thomas Jefferson’s list of human rights: All people are “endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are life, liberty, the enjoyment of the fruits of their own labor, and the pursuit of happiness.” (p. 52) After the experience of 250 years of slavery, the Fusion Party understood that it is difficult to have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, if people are not able to receive just compensation for their labor.
The Civil Rights movement was the Second Reconstruction and it was also a fusion movement. There were many whites involved in and white support of the Civil Rights movement. Like the First Reconstruction, voting rights was a key goal for both movements. Voting rights is also a key in the Third Reconstruction which is seen by Barber as a movement to overcome the effects of the “Southern strategy” outlined by Kevin Phillips for Richard Nixon. If this Third Reconstruction can succeed in the South, the whole politics of the United States will change for the better. But fusion politics, fusing all the justice issues and fusing all the identity groups is the basis of the strategy.
In 2017 and 2018 Reverend Barber is organizing a national Poor People’s Campaign, at first focusing on the states. Go to the website to see a short video, sign up and join the campaign: https://poorpeoplescampaign.org/ Here is the Facebook page of the Washington State Poor People’s Campaign: https://www.facebook.com/WashingtonPPC/ Here is a 45 minute video of Rev Barber speaking to the Steel Workers Union: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=oNDYpvN3EcE
We are in an emergency. The current power of the large banks, multinational corporations, the corporate media and the successful efforts at voter suppression is so great that only a massive coalition like what Rev. Barber is trying to organize can “change the conversation” in our nation. Too many people who identify as “progressives” remain confined in single–issue organizations, NGOs or multi-issue sectarian political groups. And, we will need more people than just those who were active before Trump.
Black Lives Matter can’t win alone. Immigrants can’t win alone. Labor can’t win alone. The peace movement and ban the nukes movement can’t win alone. Medicare for all, education for all and jobs for all can’t win alone. We need to work together to win the world we need.
I am almost afraid to hope. But reading this book and watching Rev Barber on YouTube gave me the idea that maybe a new approach and a new vision can turn things around.