Only by uniting across sometimes uncomfortable differences can working and middle-class Americans build a big enough movement to beat the big money of elites, writes Rev. William J. Barber in The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement. Since those of us in the 99% have the numbers, if we are able to band together and stay together despite clever tricks to pull us apart, then we are sure to win.
A fast-moving account of the birth of the Moral Mondays activism movement in North Carolina, Barber’s book provides a model for intersectional non-violent direct action that has spread across the country. For Barber, North Carolina is not just a microcosm of the nation but as a southern state, its story offers special significance:
Among these United States, our history of inequality and injustice is nowhere more rigidly defined and painfully exposed than in the Southern states. But precisely for this reason, the South is also a deep well of resistance, struggle, and freedom movements. If we want to save the soul of America, we must look not only to states generally but to Southern states in particular.
As Barber’s title suggests, the book draws on the history of civil rights activism, both the period conventionally known as Reconstruction right after the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, which many people have started calling the Second Reconstruction.
Barber calls for a third iteration of an organized freedom movement today that would use the method of the late 19th century Fusionists in North Carolina and other southern states. That is, to forge a coalition across race of Black people and poor whites based on common economic interests in unions, healthcare for all, and education.
We must recognize how the rich have always used white supremacy as a way to divide and rule and, Barber writes, we must relentlessly guard against the temptation to give into these divisive tactics, to retreat into Black and white spheres of political interests, looking out only for “our own kind.”
Instead, we must seek more opportunities to take up the other person’s cross. And that other person may be one who’s hard for some of us to understand. For example, Barber relates stories of how conservative Black churchgoers had a hard time connecting with unions or LGBTQ+ activists. Wealthy agitators like the Koch Brothers and ALEC knew this, and used this cleavage to divide the movement, giving Tea Partiers a temporary advantage that led to a takeover of state government in North Carolina shortly after Obama first gained the White House.
The new Republican majority elected as the speaker of the state assembly Rep. Thom Tillis, a master of dividing progressives from each other in order to conquer them all. As Barber writes, after Tillis’s election,
Someone posted a video of him on YouTube in which he is seen explaining to a room of white people how “we have to find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance.” He went on to explain how he wanted a woman with cerebral palsy to “look down on those people” who, unlike her, choose to be in the condition they’re in and therefore deserve nothing. It was a textbook example of racism without overt racists.
After their success in North Carolina, Republicans hoped to export this model of politics to other states.
Personal stories from Barber’s own life, especially his battle with debilitating health problems, along with frequent lessons from the Bible, give a taste of a man of God whose religion tells him that what’s right will always win, no matter how formidable the obstacles.
I’m an Atheist Too
Barber’s focus on Christianity as the inspiration for political activism may not resonate with some white progressives with a secular orientation. But since the Civil War and even before, the church has been one of the most important influences in Black communities everywhere across the United States. It’s no accident that many civil rights leaders, from MLK to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have also been religious leaders. Barber has a novel approach to handling progressives who are uncomfortable with religion:
Not long ago I was a guest on Real Time with Bill Maher, with one of America’s most prominent atheists. Wearing my clerical collar, I realized that I stood out among his guests. So I decided to announce to Bill that I, too, am an atheist. He seemed taken aback, so I explained that if we were talking about the God who hates poor people, immigrants, and gay folks, I don’t believe in that God either. Sometimes it helps to clarify our language.
Barber’s book demonstrates the power that faith can provide to progressive politics for people of all colors. Atheist, agnostic, and believer alike can benefit from Barber’s call to unite with unlikely allies — even those who may seem like opponents. In Barber’s words:
As St. Paul says in the book of Romans, we are more than conquerors when we engage in a moral struggle. It’s not enough to conquer the opposition. In a nonviolent struggle, we are committed to fight on until we win our adversaries as friends.
Following Gandhi and MLK, Barber offers a psychology of nonviolent direct action whose ultimate goal is to convert your enemy into your friend. Barber quotes King:
The significant thing is that when you follow this way, when the battle is almost over, a new friendship and reconciliation exists between the people who have been the oppressors and the oppressed.
It’s powerful stuff in a politics as polarized as ours. But you can’t be friends until you grow into a new relationship, and that involves justice, which is an equally powerful message for a time like ours with so many lingering problems from racism to growing economic inequality.