"This Is Our Selma" – An Interview with North Carolina NAACP President William J. Barber

23 Jul 2015 | America's Tomorrow
"This Is Our Selma" – An Interview with North Carolina NAACP President William J. Barber
Above: North Carolina NAACP

The eyes of America are on a high-stakes trial in a federal courthouse in North Carolina on voting rights that has important implications for political power and equitable economic opportunity in the nation. The North Carolina NAACP, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the League of Women Voters have sued the state to overturn some of the worst voter restrictions in the country. Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, who is president of the state NAACP and was the first to take the stand, testified that the policies were intentionally designed to suppress Black and Latino voting — an increasingly potent factor in local, statewide, and national elections.

Historian Gavin Wright has shown that voter protections have been instrumental in advancing not only the democratic participation of people of color, but also their economic participation, particularly in the South. Fair voting has allowed people of color to share more equitably in public-sector jobs and municipal contracts, he writes. By ushering in an era of competitive two-party politics in the South, the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 led to investments in schools, transportation, and communities that enhanced regional growth. The conservative assault on voting rights across the U.S. threatens to roll back a half-century of social and economic progress, Barber says.

Barber founded the Forward Together Movement, which gave rise to North Carolina's Moral Monday protests. He spoke with America's Tomorrow about how the voting rights case fits into the broader movement for racial and economic justice, dignity, opportunity.

In describing the lawsuit, you have said, “This is our Selma.” Explain the connection.

We are fighting the first and the worst voter suppression case since Selma, since 1965. On June 25, 2013, five men on the Supreme Court of this country decided to gut the Voting Rights Act. With that, we had less voting rights than we had on August 6, 1965, the date the act was signed — a law that came after Bloody Sunday and the March of Selma to Montgomery captured the attention of the nation and set a new context of racial consciousness. After the Supreme Court ruling, in just a few days and without any discussion, the North Carolina state legislature passed a bill that did everything they could to suppress the vote, almost as though they saw the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act as a signal to go forth and disempower communities.

Describe the new voter rules and the racial impacts.

The state legislature has cut early voting. They ended same-day registration — African Americans represent 22 percent of the electorate but 41 percent of those who do same-day registration. They ended out-of-precinct voting even though more than 50 percent of African Americans have voted out of precinct, because of the ways in which precincts are often moved and changed in poor minority communities. And they ended a program to pre-register 16- and 17-year-olds. Before the ink dried, we filed our suit. The first day of testimony had an African American Marine who was not allowed to vote because of the denial of same-day registration.

You were primed to respond immediately because you had laid strong groundwork with Forward Together and the Moral Monday protests. What is the movement's agenda?

We have five key issues that we believe must be examined through the lens of race and class. The first is economic sustainability, addressing poverty and labor rights. Number two, educational equality for all. Number three, health care, environmental protection, and women's health. Number four, criminal justice reform to deal with the continuing disparities that impact Black, Brown and poor White people. And number five, protecting and expanding voter rights, immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, labor rights, and the principle of equal protection under the law. These are moral issues and they intersect inextricably.

Why do you see economic sustainability in moral terms?

Every major religion speaks to the issue of how we treat the poor, how we take care of workers. And our constitution in this country makes the establishment of justice and the promotion of the general welfare the premise of a free nation. Anything less than that in our economics is a violation of our constitution. After slavery, North Carolina placed this language in our state constitution. They said that all persons are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and then they added "the enjoyment of the fruit of their own labor.” They added this as a moral endowment because they recognized 144 years ago that any kind of labor without the proper ability to earn a living wage and a livelihood was a form of pseudo-slavery.

How can activists around the country support the movement-building you're engaged in?

If you look at American history, there are two big times that we had fundamental change. One I call the first reconstruction, from 1868 to about 1890. And the other was the civil rights period, from 1954, the Brown Decision, to 1968. In both periods we made great strides. Both periods called people to expand their vision, hope, and dreams, and to be willing to fight for the transformation of the country. Both periods also represented times when we organized what's called fusion politics — in the late 1800's with Black and White coming together and in the sixties with Black, White, Latino, women, and young people coming together around a clear agenda.

I believe we are in the embryonic stages of a third reconstruction, and that we need it. I think the extremists see it, because they see the demographics changes in the South. If we can bring it all together — Black, Brown, young, old, gay, straight, and getting White people to vote their future, not their fears — it will be transformational. So the greatest way to support this work is to build deeply moral, deeply constitutional, anti-racist, anti-poverty, pro-labor, and transformative fusion movements in each state. Movements willing to be very diverse and willing, when necessary, to engage in civil disobedience.

Why do you focus on state governments?

The worst impediments to go forward are happening not in the Congress but in our state legislatures. Congress isn't doing hardly anything. State legislatures are cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit, cutting education, dismantling labor rights, and denying voting rights. So we need movements, particularly in the Southern states, because if you can break open the South, you can literally break open the nation.

What gives you hope as you fight to hold on?

When I see the way in which the Forward Together Moral Movement has stayed together and grown from 16 organizations in 2006 to over 200 now; over 100,000 people came together in one day, and over 1,000 people were arrested in civil disobedience  — more than any time in history in a state capital. We're not weak; we're very strong. The nation's conscience is awakening. You know, the Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson made separate but equal the law of the land in 1896. The NAACP became an organization in 1909 and it took us 45 years to change that. But we didn't quit. After the March on Washington in 1963, it took us two more years to get a Voting Rights Act, but we didn't quit. What gives me hope is the record and the history of justice. In a real sense, justice has been delayed and denied, but it has never been ultimately defeated.

Learn more and get involved at www.naacpnc.org.

Read the rest of the June 26, 2015 America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.