A New Day
Jarvis Hall leans into the podium, gazing at the press gaggle in the conference room of the Legislative Building after concluding a cell-phone conversation. The NC Central University professor and state NAACP political action chair tells them the Rev. William Barber is on the road and will be here momentarily. It’s still early.
As Hall and North Carolina NAACP executive director Amina Turner huddle over their legislative agenda, political allies array themselves on either side. At the end of the line to their right stands Stephen Dear from People of Faith Against the Death Penalty. Two staffers from Action For Children North Carolina smile broadly. Erin Byrd of the NAACP political action committee jokes with state AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer MaryBe McMillan.
To their left are two Democratic state lawmakers, Rep. Alma Adams of Greensboro and Rep. Larry Womble of Winston-Salem. Also included in the group are representatives of the ACLU of North Carolina, the environmental watchdog group NC-WARN and Democracy North Carolina, the good government group whose scrutiny of Jim Black’s ties to the video poker industry in the summer of 2004 started the process that recently ended with the House speakers’ guilty plea in federal court for accepting cash in exchange for legislation. They’re all waiting.
Hall jokes: “I can feel him coming around the corner.”
Sure enough, Barber soon lumbers into the room, his clerical collar discretely clasped underneath a bulky suit jacket. He nods to friends and makes his way to the podium. Beginning quietly, the Disciples of Christ pastor from Goldsboro and NAACP state conference president thanks Adams and Womble before quoting scripture from the Book of Isaiah.
“The scripture says, ‘Woe unto those who make unjust laws that negatively affect the poor,'” he says. “The flipside of that must be, ‘Blessed are they who make laws that help the poor.'”
1 Barber references Historic Thousands on Jones Street, or HK on J, the Feb. 10 rally in Raleigh that marked the 98th anniversary of the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, reminding the group that “we gathered as a coalition with an anti-racist agenda, an anti-poverty agenda and an anti-war agenda.”
The agenda, broken into 14 points, had been read aloud by a revolving cast of progressive leaders to thousands assembled in Progress Energy Center. Today, the agenda is presented as a list of bills the coalition hopes to pass this year as a comprehensive package in the fashion of the federal Civil Rights Acts of 1964. There’s a call to abolish the death penalty, to pass a resolution against the war in Iraq, to repeal North Carolina’s prohibition against collective bargaining by public workers, to bring the minimum wage closer to a living wage, to better fund historically black colleges and universities, to fully fund public schools to abide by the NC Supreme Court’s 1997 Leandro decision, and to establish a statewide truth and reconciliation commission. Just to name a few. Fourteen points.
“It has to be done all together,” Barber insists. “I didn’t learn that at North Carolina Central. I didn’t learn that at Duke. I learned that from ‘Sesame Street’ on public broadcasting. Grover’s learning that ‘these three things go together and this one does not.’
“You cannot talk about apologizing for [the pogrom against Wilmington blacks in] 1898, and not talk about reparations for the sterilization of black women forty years later,” he says. “You cannot talk about Wilmington and not talk about the fact that some of the these counties still don’t have district elections and black representatives on county boards and commissions.”
2 “I have a church and family that understands,” the 43-year-old Barber says, explaining how he balances his obligations as a father, husband, pastor and political leader. “When I have time to spend with young people, it buoys my energy.”
“Youth, Empowerment, Substance and Service” was Barber’s campaign slogan when he ran for president of the NC NAACP State Conference of Branches in 2005, defeating eight-year incumbent Skip Alston. The new president’s efforts to revitalize youth branches of the NAACP have included visits to Bennett College, where his daughter is a senior.
3 One of the Greensboro branch’s newer members is Jerry McClough, a 36-year-old web designer and political science student at NC A&T University who signed up about three years ago.
“I saw why the NAACP wasn’t very active in the community: because there wasn’t really a lot of next-generation leaders in the room,” he says. “My thing was trying to get more young people involved instead of criticizing from the outside.”
The NAACP’s leadership tends to downplay the differences between Barber and Alston, a Guilford County commissioner. When the dust settled at the Koury Convention Center in Greensboro at the end of the 2005 convention, Alston made a gracious concession speech.
“I’ve always taken my fight to the people that was against the NAACP and our goals,” says Alston, who remains a member of the NAACP’s 60-some-member national board. “At the same time, Reverend Barber has his way, and I have my way. I support Reverend Barber and the state conference. It’s not about individuals. It’s about the organization and our cause. That’s what I was trying to carry out and that’s what Reverend Barber was trying to carry out.”
In his 2005 convention speech to the delegates just before polling began, Alston posited the NAACP struggle as a contest between black and white.
“My goal was that this would be a fearless organization that would scare white people,” he said then. “That’s why we put out our legislative report card…. I have an African-American agenda and white folks don’t like that.”
Supporters suggest the organization has become more visible since Barber took the reigns.
“If you look across the South – I don’t know about the NAACP organizations in the North, but I know a little bit about Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia – it spends most of the time working behind the scenes, trying to build its membership and build its clout, and then negotiating with various state and local leaders on traditional issues of discrimination,” says Al McSurely, a Chapel Hill lawyer who heads the legal redress committee. “Reverend Barber’s analysis – which I share – is, the crisis for black kids and the black community is in such great proportion, so dangerous, that we can no longer afford to remain silent. We have to do it in the open. We have to risk our lives and reputations. That’s the main difference.”
Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat who supports most of the 14-point agenda, says in her experience the NAACP has been a more high-profile lobbying presence in Raleigh since Barber took over.
“There’s a pretty stark contrast there,” she said. “[Barber]’s very passionate and inspiring, like you’d expect a preacher to be. Skip was more of a strategic lobbyist. He might have had clients whose interests were contrary to his constituents, like… the billboard industry. Which is not an aspersion against Skip. Skip might have been distracted by his business clients. [Barber’s] agenda is strictly for the people, particularly for the less fortunate.”
Harrison alluded to a longstanding perception of Alston as an ally of the payday loan industry. It’s a notion Alston has worked hard to dispel.
“I never represented anybody in payday lending,” he says. “I’m on record as going against payday lending.
“I’ve been a representative of the billboard industry for twenty years, and the NAACP and the billboard industry have been partners for fifteen years,” he continues. “The outdoor advertising industry gave a million dollars worth of free advertising to the NAACP at my request in order to increase the organization’s membership. That was done at the national level. The billboard industry is always prepared to support the national NAACP at my request and always prepared to support the regional NAACP at my request.
“How can it be a distraction,” he asks? “I’ve represented nobody else but the NAACP and the billboard industry. I’ve never been a lobbyist for nobody else.”
4 Before Barber declared his candidacy against Alston, vague rumblings about Alston’s alleged involvement with payday lending reverberated through the conference and set the stage for the pastor’s successful challenge.
An example is this July 1, 2005 blog post by Curmilus Dancy, a Nash County member who goes by the handle of “The Political Agitator.”
“The word on the street is that Rev. William Barber, pastor of the Greenleaf Baptist Church in Goldsboro, is going to challenge Skip,” Dancy wrote. “Sources say that they feel it is time for a change, especially when the word on the street is that Skip is heavily involved in PayDay Lending.”
After the election, Dancy would be appointed publicity and press chairman for the conference. Alston, in turn, went on UNC-TV’s “Black Issues Forum” to explain the origins of the controversy.
“In 2003, when a [Payday Lending Bill] was on the table, we invited – the NAACP executive committee invited the people for payday lending and people against payday lending to come to us in order to present your case,” Alston told host Mitchell Lewis. “And then when both of them presented their case, there was a motion made by one of my members to not take a position on the bill at all, okay? The motion passed unanimously, okay? I, as president at that time – I couldn’t go out and speak for the bill or against the bill.
“And then some powers that be that know [NAACP national chairman] Julian Bond very well – they wrote, called Julian Bond and asked him to take a position on the bill,” he continued. “And Julian Bond sent a letter down to the legislature and said that the NAACP opposed the bill. Julian Bond was in error because he should not have – well, he was wrong to do that without letting me know as state conference president. I have never supported payday lending.”
Rather than chastise Alston in the NAACP’s national convention speech in Miami in 2003, Bond highlighted Alston’s past opposition to payday lending.
“Two years ago, our North Carolina state president and board member Skip Alston rightly called [payday lending] ‘exploitation, pure and simple,'” Bond said. “Tolerating this practice is unworthy of a society that claims to value its most vulnerable. By convention resolutions in 2000 and last year and by a board resolution this year, we’ve set binding policy on this issue for the NAACP from the smallest to largest branches to the national staff.
“We despise this predatory practice that targets the poor, especially blacks,” he continued. “Charging annual interest rates of 390 percent, these companies prey on the weak, trapping them in unending cycles of debt. We won’t take their money, and we’ll do our best to stop them from taking money from others.”
5 NAACP activists speak of a desire for cooperation with white people of goodwill, invoking the organization’s interracial founding. They emphasize economic justice issues relevant to poor people of all races as a mounting concern while arguing that battling discrimination remains a priority.
“Racism is not the only issue that we have,” McClough says. “I think that so many leaders are already trying to bring that race issue up because the majority of the time they don’t know what the issue is or they want to continue to perpetuate racism because they know racism is going to get the black community in an uproar. Right now, Reverend Barber is not creating division. He’s creating unity across racial lines. If you take racism out of some of these self-proclaimed leaders’ conversation, what kind of conversation would it be?”
The problems go deeper than previous leaders may have perceived, and so the solutions must be more radical, he suggests.
“I look at it as, America’s broken right now, when you’re built upon capitalism and imperialism, when you have groups come together that want social change and social revolution and you try to hold them back because you don’t want to rise above the situation,” McClough says. “That’s when you’ve got fascism – that’s what’s going on.”
6 At HK on J, Byrd of the political action committee and Marisol Jiménez McGee, lobbyist for El Pueblo, had made a bilingual presentation of the coalition’s immigrant rights agenda, which calls for a prohibition against local law enforcement from handling immigration violations, protecting the labor rights of undocumented workers, opening access to higher education for the children of undocumented immigrants, and maintaining basic services for all regardless of immigration status.
“This is not only the agenda for the African-American community,” McClough says. “It’s important [to reach out], especially with our Latino brothers and sisters because they’re going to be facing the same issues as the African-American community. Now you have the middle class facing the same issues. It’s very important that we move forward and put the same issues on the table.”
He ticks off the areas where blacks, Hispanics, and even middle-class whites might join forces to accomplish a shared agenda: “Wanting to keep the American dream alive. You want to make sure that your child can get an education. You want to make sure that your child can get health care. You want to make sure that you got a job, ensure the basic needs. It seems that the basic needs are being threatened right now.”
The Rev. Cardes Brown, pastor at New Light Baptist Church and president of the Greensboro NAACP branch, acknowledges that competition between blacks and Latinos for jobs and resources threatens to leave the black-brown coalition stillborn.
“Many of the immigrants that are coming into the country right now, we act as if anyone coming to the door of achievement, we want to slam it in their face,” he says. “The strategy of the trying to pit the people against each other – I’m praying for the day that Latinos an African Americans will realize that we all are nomads searching for our forty acres and a mule. There’s plenty for everybody to live lavishly. Did the Latinos export the jobs abroad? I pray that African Americans will wake up to the fact that our fight is not with Latinos. Our fight is against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
7 As much as NAACP leaders invoke the omnibus Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the economic justice message of Martin Luther King, many also consider themselves heirs to a much older legacy and one unique to North Carolina.
David Cecelski and Timothy Tyson write in the introduction of Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy: “For almost a year, the Democratic Party – the self-avowed ‘party of white supremacy’ – had conducted a statewide campaign of racist appeals and political violence aimed at shattering the coalition of black Republicans and white Populists that had been in office since 1894.
“Advocating freer elections, popular control of local government, and regulation to contain the excesses of monopoly capitalism, this interracial ‘Fusion’ coalition had captured the governorship, the General Assembly, and countless local offices, threatening the power of both the remnants of the old planter class and the emerging industrial leaders of the New South. For the first time since Radical Reconstruction in 1868-70, black North Carolinians and a sizable number of whites had come together in a common cause.”
In what is considered perhaps the only successful coup d’etat in American history, white supremacists in the Democratic Party killed blacks, burned businesses and homes, drove blacks and their white allies in the Republican Party from elected office and provoked a black exodus from Wilmington. The bloodbath closed a chapter on the fusionist movement and ushered in a period of black political disenfranchisement that would last until the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.
“The prospects of equal civil rights for African Americans were darkened as a result of the events of 1898,” the state-sanctioned1898 Wilmington Race Riot Commission found in its final report last year. “As the newly elected Democratically controlled General Assembly enacted the state’s first Jim Crow legislation in 1899, North Carolina joined the rest of the South in undermining the efforts of Republicans, both before and after Reconstruction, to equalize the races in education, employment, and political involvement. Future generations of Democratic Party politicians built upon the foundations of discrimination and economic disadvantage established in 1898.”
8 Episodes such as the Wilmington massacre were repeated across the nation at the turn of the century. Race riots in Springfield, Ill., the renowned home of President Lincoln, prompted the founding of the NAACP. Appalled by a journalistic account of how “a mob containing many of the town’s ‘best citizens,’ raged for two days, killed and wounded scores of Negroes, and drove thousands from the city,” Mary White Ovington and others resolved to launch the new organization on Feb. 12, 1909. The founders chose the date to mark the centennial of President Lincoln’s birth.
“If Mr. Lincoln could revisit this country in the flesh,” New York Evening Post publisher Oswald Garrison Villard wrote in a statement that served as the NAACP’s call to arms, “he would be disheartened and discouraged. He would learn that on January 1, 1909, Georgia had rounded out a new confederacy by disfranchising the Negro, after the manner of all the other Southern states.
“He would learn that the Supreme Court… has laid down the principle that if an individual state chooses, it may ‘make it a crime’ for a white and colored person to frequent the same market place at the same time, or appear in an assemblage of citizens, convened to consider questions of a public and political nature in which all citizens, without regard to race, are equally interested,” the statement continues. “In many states, Lincoln would find justice enforced, if at all, by judges elected by one element in a community to pass upon the liberties and lives of another. He would see the black men and women, for whose freedom a hundred thousand of soldiers gave their lives, set apart in trains, in which they pay first-class fares for third-class service, and segregated in railway stations and in places of entertainment; he would observe that state after state declines to do its elementary duty in preparing the Negro through education for the best exercise of citizenship.”
At the NAACP’s second annual conference in 1910 Atlanta University professor WEB DuBois was appointed director of publicity and research. DuBois had been a founding member of the Niagara Movement in 1905. The similarities between the two organization’s platforms and the Niagara Movement’s relative lack of funds led DuBois and others to transfer their energies to the NAACP, Ovington reported in an official history. By 1914, several of the Niagara Movement’s most prominent members served on the NAACP’s board of directors.
9 “Ninety-eight years ago, black people, white people, anti-racist people came together to turn back the flood of racial discrimination,” Barber thunders, invoking the founding in his address from the stage at Progress Energy Center before the march to the Legislative Building for HK on J.
“Reverend Barber has been anointed,” McClough later says. “It’s the spirit of him. He’s able to lead people from different walks of life. Certain leaders in the African-American community are always focusing on racism, racism, racism, and Reverend Barber will touch on that, but he wants to help everybody.”
It shows in the cohesion of the dozens of people gathered onstage to read the agenda items, in the 50-some organizations representing labor, the environmental movement and the anti-war cause that have joined the coalition.
“This is not about one person’s ego,” Barber says. “None of us is perfect. None of us has it all. We can’t do it alone. Even Jesus couldn’t do it without God. And he needed the disciples. He was inclusive.”
10 Coalition leaders are quick to note that while the NAACP spearheaded HK on J and the 14-point agenda, the effort has been a partnership. Typical of the modest public pronouncements of coalition partners, Executive Director Melinda Lawrence downplays the significance of the NC Justice Center’s inclusion of the agenda in its newsletter – thousands of which were handed out at HK on J.
“I believe at this point not only do we regard them as a principal ally; I believe they regard us as that as well,” she says. “We worked very closely with them on the HK on J rally, and I think that was wonderful. Our commitment was really more in-kind rather than financial. We did have significant staff involved, and we were happy to include in our newsletter the fourteen points. I didn’t see the printing of the newsletter as an additional cost.”
Labor leaders credit Barber for providing their members with moral support. The NAACP leader sat on a workers rights board to hear testimony gathered by the NC Public Service Workers Union to build international pressure to repeal North Carolina’s prohibition against collective bargaining by state employees, teachers, custodians and other public service workers. He traveled to Raleigh to speak to striking sanitation workers.
“The living wage, universal health care – these are issues that are important to working people,” says Angaza Laughinghouse, president of the Public Service Workers Union, who is also an NAACP member. “The war – we’re all opposed to it. Our thinking is a lot broader than a few issues. What the NAACP did was identify the issues that have been important to all the different organizations that are in the coalition. He got us working together and mobilized us.”
About a month later when the NAACP announces its legislative agenda, MaryBe McMillan of the state AFL-CIO makes a pledge.
“We’re proud to support the fourteen-point agenda,” she says. “We will stand with you until every single issue on this agenda has been passed…. This movement will continue until all people have the same rights and privileges that the wealthy have long had in this country.”
11 An illustration of the breadth of the 14-point agenda and the thoroughness of the state NAACP in consulting with progressive leaders, Greensboro’s nearly decade-long truth and reconciliation process has surfaced as a local concept that some believe might be successfully applied on a statewide level.
“We demand that the legislature fund and participate with others in setting up a truth and reconciliation commission the state for North Carolina and to pass legislation to face up to our ugly racist history, its accumulated effects and its present debilitating legacy,” says the Rev. Nelson Johnson, reading from the agenda at HK on J. A pastor at Faith Community Church, Johnson organized an ill-fated march to condemn Klan activity, which ended in the shooting deaths of five of his colleagues in Greensboro’s Morningside Homes neighborhood in 1979.
The coalition’s agenda calls on the General Assembly to implement the recommendations of the Wilmington Race Riot Commission, make reparations to mostly black and poor women who were involuntarily sterilized by the state during the 20th century, and establish a statewide truth commission modeled on efforts in Greensboro and South Africa.
12 As the NAACP builds new alliances, the leadership has kept a wary lookout for a potential backlash.
An outgoing message last summer on a Ku Klux Klan hotline in Vance County gives leaders pause. As has a series of church fires in Greenville, although police have so far established no motive and have not tied the suspected arsons to white supremacist groups.
A reference to “nigger doctors” on the hotline set up by the Confederate Knights of the Ku Klux Klan constitutes a direct attack on Barber, who holds a doctoral degree, and on the late Dr. James Greene of Vance County, state NAACP leaders believe.
A transcript of the Klan hotline message provided to Attorney General Roy Cooper by the state NAACP contains the words: “We do not intend to offer our message to please any false denominational preachers or any NAACP nigger doctors, for that matter…. The KKK has fought communism worldwide, from the rice paddies in foreign countries to the streets of Greensboro, North Carolina.”
The hotline has since been disconnected.
“We’re very concerned about that as Reverend Barber begins to reach out and try to rebuild the black-white-brown alliances – what we used to call the human being movement – that white people who join the antiracist struggle and the antiwar movement – will be attacked,” says McSurely, the legal redress chair. “What they really targeted, or at least equally targeted [in Greensboro in 1979] were these white doctors that were getting involved. They want to make white people think twice about being openly antiracist.”
13 The abrupt resignation and conviction of former House Speaker Jim Black strikes some in the state NAACP’s leadership as a welcome opportunity, even as lawmakers who were formerly aligned with Black scramble to find their place in new Speaker Joe Hackney’s House.
“What has happened in the Jim Black guilty plea is that it has opened up the legislature to being a little more conscious instead of pay-to-play,” McSurely says. “Some of these good-old boys who have run the legislature for years are going to have to be a little more careful. We hope that that change in the legislature will open up some possibility for what the people want instead of what moneyed interests want.”
To that end, the coalition includes an agenda item calling for public financing of elections in selected legislative districts, similar to an arrangement currently in place for statewide judicial races. “The cost of winning a seat in the General Assembly has jumped fourfold in a decade,” the agenda reads. “Wealthy candidates and their big donors prosper, but voters get disgusted and grassroots leaders who would make good public servants get pushed aside.”
14McSurely recalls sitting beside Adams, who had recently been elected chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus, at HK on J. Carolyn Coleman, a personal friend of Adams who is also a Guilford County commissioner and a member of the NAACP national board, was also there.
“Al, this is really good stuff,” McSurely recalls Adams telling him as speakers from the stage read through the 14-point agenda. “Have you put this in any written form that we can start translating into law?”
McSurely turned to Coleman and asked her to give Adams a copy of the NC Justice Center newsletter that included the detailed agenda.
On March 28, the local chapters will be busing members into Raleigh for a “people of color” lobbying day to fan out through the legislature and urge lawmakers to support the 14-point agenda. McSurely says 500 people turned out last year, and the NAACP hopes to build on that number.
“Alma Adams is already in our camp,” he says, “but we could give some of the Guilford delegation fits.”
At the March 7 press conference, Adams appears to caution the coalition against overly high expectations.
“This is a very aggressive agenda that’s being proposed,” she says, noting that it will take more than the 28 members of the black caucus to get it passed.
At least one bill has been filed since HK on J.
Rep. Larry Womble, a diamond-life member of the Forsyth County NAACP branch, joined by Adams, Winston-Salem’s Earline Parmon and Greensboro’s Earl Jones, filed the Sterilization Compensation Act on Feb. 20.
Pricey Harrison, a Greensboro Democrat, says she supports the full agenda, with the possible exception of the call for the state to raise its minimum wage closer to a livable wage because she’s “not sure it’s government’s role to tell business how much to pay their employees.”
Stopping short of embracing a comprehensive legislative package, Harrison says she sees some potential for cobbling together coalitions with more conservative, pro-business Democrats to enact some of the legislation.
“On the affordable housing, you’ve got the builders, the realtors, the chambers of commerce; the Justice Center, the low-income advocates are all pushing for it,” she says. “On the ‘health care for all,’ I’m hearing from doctors about why this is important, and of course [there are] the low-income advocates. I think there’s a chance for folks to rally around it.
“Some of these things they are pushing are things that I care about quite passionately like [abolishing] death penalty and health care,” she adds. “It really resonates with me.”
If Barber has any doubts about the possibility of making law out of this imaginative crazy quilt of working-class uplift, racial justice, enhanced democracy and educational reform, he does not betray them.
“This is faith time,” he tells the masses at HK on J. “This is movement time. This is my time. This is your time. This is our time. This is people’s time. This is God’s time. Let us believe all things are possible.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org