Writing for the New York Times, Charles Blow recently confessed a sense of dread that many Americans feel in this year’s Presidential campaign: “Sometimes it’s hard to shake the feeling that we are witnessing the dissolution of an idea that was once America.” A populist movement has emerged in both the Republican and Democratic primaries, challenging establishment candidates because, in the eyes of so many, America simply isn’t working. Black Lives Matter has revealed that our criminal justice system is broken. The Fight for 15 has exposed our vanishing middle class, while Flint reveals that our infrastructure is crumbling. Legislative obstructionism is shutting down rural hospitals as a nation of immigrants finds itself unable to achieve comprehensive immigration reform.
And these are only the issues we’re talking about.
No one can ignore America’s crisis. Both parties want to frame it as a leadership vacuum that can only be filled by their candidate’s experience, vision, or mere potency. But Blow’s confession is significant because it dares to admit what many of us have come to feel in our gut: the honest answer to the question, “Who can get us out of this mess?” is “None of the above.”
Because the crisis we face isn’t simply about leadership. It’s about the moral foundations of democracy.
Enter Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II. For the past ten years, Rev. Barber has been building a moral movement in North Carolina, based on a “fusion coalition” model he says he learned from Reconstruction history. “After the Civil War, white and black came together and built a Fusion Party in this state,” Rev. Barber says, teaching 19th century history with the passion of a Pentecostal preacher. “They transformed public education, guaranteed just wages, expanded voting rights, and fought for equal protection under the law.” Their coalition was defeated, Barber says, when it was divided by racial propaganda and a Redeemers movement which used religious language to sanction the “morality” of segregation.
But fusion coalitions have the power to reconstruct democracy, Barber argues. Working as a grassroots organizer in his home state, he has built a movement of over 200 state-based organizations, reclaiming religious language by framing issues impacting the “general welfare” as moral issues. When “Moral Mondays” became the largest state-government focused civil disobedience campaign in US history, Dr. Cornel West told the Associated Press that Rev. Barber is “the only King-like figure we have in the country right now.”
While he has a deep respect for Dr. King’s prophetic leadership, Rev. Barber shrugs off the compliment. America doesn’t need a leader—not even a leader like King. Barber’s analysis of our political crisis lines up with Blow, though it leads to a more hopeful conclusion. “We need indigenously-led, state-based coalitions to build up a Third Reconstruction.” Barber doesn’t just believe in this as an abstract ideal. He’s seen it transform the political conversation in North Carolina, and he’s devoted himself to making it happen throughout the country.
Joining with fellow North Carolina native and prophetic preacher the Rev. Dr. Jim Forbes, Rev. Barber recently announced plans for “The Revival: A Moral Revolution of Values.” A thirteen-state tour to begin on April 4, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, The Revival will train faith and progressive leaders in moral fusion organizing in advance of revival style meetings with music, testimony, prophetic preaching, and an alter call, inviting respondents to participate in coordinated civil disobedience at state houses across the country.
“Our 13-state tour is focused on a revolution of moral values,” said Forbes. “By morality, we mean governing for the good of the whole, not a small, destructive few. In the faith tradition, revival stirs up the faithful—restores believers to places of maximum impact. Our tour prepares progressive faith leaders to more forcefully challenge extremist rhetoric and policies.”
While many faith leaders expressed outrage when Donald Trump hesitated to disavow the Ku Klux Klan, we have by-and-large lacked the moral clarity to stand against the race-based policies pushed through America’s state houses by corporately sponsored politicians. In the midst of non-stop news coverage of the first Presidential campaign since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in its Shelby decision, almost no one is talking about voter suppression.
But Rev. Barber’s Moral Movement held the largest Get Out the Vote rally of 2016 on a cold Saturday in February. Thousands of people flooded the Fayettevile Mall in Raleigh, North Carolina to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a fusion coalition that has committed itself to reconstructing democracy from the ground up. Shortly before the rally began, Bernie Sanders’ campaign released a statement saying they had been turned away from the event. Rev. Barber clarified the confusion from the stage: “This isn’t a platform for political candidates,” he said. “It’s a place for the people to speak. We don’t endorse candidates. We invite them all to come and hear what a moral agenda requires of us.”
Too many campaign rallies can give you the feeling that the very idea of America is unraveling. But Rev. Barber is breathing life into that prophetic tradition that inspired Langston Hughes to declare that the America that had never been America to him would, nevertheless, one day be.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove directs the School for Conversion in Durham, North Carolina. Together with Rev. Dr. William Barber II, he recently published The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement.
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