When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King stood at the Lincoln Memorial 50 years ago on Aug. 28, 1963, he gave voice to a vision first birthed in the mind of God, coursing through the mouths of the prophets, and nurtured since the days of slavery in the hearts and souls of those who longed for freedom. His rich, prophetic language, rooted deep in the black Southern tradition, was also bright with the vision of a new day.
He stood in an atmosphere filled with the emotion of those trying to move America to a brighter place. Two hundred and fifty thousand people had gathered in what King called “the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.” In front of him lay a speech he had labored on for four long days with the help of half a dozen of his aides. Gripping the lectern, he started out reading the text of the speech.
Then, toward the end of the prepared speech, the language seemed to turn flat. Sitting behind King, Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel voice of the South, sensed the moment slipping away. She leaned forward and said in a loud voice, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin.” Nobody knows whether he heard her or not, but King left his prepared text entirely and began to improvise from a set piece he first delivered in Rocky Mount, N.C., almost a year before Jackson heard it in Detroit. And so began the only part of that speech that most people remember: “I have a dream today …”
I was born Aug. 30, 1963, two days after the March on Washington. In the years after the march, my parents relocated from Indianapolis to eastern North Carolina for the specific purpose of joining the fight to desegregate public schools in the state. This meant they had to make the decision to enter me, their 5-year-old son, into segregated public schools instead of the schools that had been somewhat desegregated in Indiana. My father, the Rev. William Joseph Barber Sr., was my first role model regarding social engagement. Both a minister and a tireless activist who helped integrate North Carolina’s public schools, he showed me that to be a Christian is to be engaged in issues of social justice.
The interconnectedness of faith and civil rights is echoed in two critical passages of Scripture — Isaiah 58, which commands us to cry out loudly against injustice, and Luke 4, in which Jesus’ first sermon singles out five groups of people to serve: the poor, the sick, the blind, the captive and the ostracized. In other words, God has always had a dream about how we should care for one another, how power should be used to uplift and not oppress and how those who love God should stand up against those who would attempt to move contrary to the dream of God. My concern for civil rights cannot be separated from my Christianity.
It is crucial that when we remember Dr. King, we also remember that biblical voice and the voices from offstage and the chorus of the ancestors that beat within him and us and the thousands of people who organized the civil rights movement in local communities across the South that made the movement what it was. When we honor Dr. King, we honor the movement that produced him. Our encomiums to him are mere shorthand for honoring all the voices offstage and all the best that is within us.
It is this adherence to the “tell them about the dream” that is at the moral center that guides North Carolina’s Forward Together Movement, in which thousands of determined people gather each Monday — Moral Monday — at the North Carolina General Assembly to protest the extreme, immoral policies of Gov. Pat McCrory and the leadership in our legislature and who are now rallying across the state.
It is adherence to this call that has led nearly a thousand people to submit themselves to arrest through civil disobedience in protest. It is adherence to this call that guided us last summer, on the anniversary of the March on Washington, to hold 13 simultaneous rallies in the 13 congressional districts in our state. We are led by a moral calling to speak out against policies that reject federal aid to extend Medicaid to 500,000 poor and uninsured North Carolina families, end the Earned Income Tax Credit for more than 900,000 low-income working families and end critical unemployment benefits for 70,000 laid-off workers. It is adherence to this call that took us to Atlanta last week to demand Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act for Georgia’s downtrodden. And it is adherence to this call that has convinced us to march on Raleigh on Feb. 8 in the spirit of Dr. King’s 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. As Isaiah 10:1 says, “Woe unto those that legislate evil and pass laws that rob the poor of their right.”
Progressive friends sometimes dismiss having a moral center as something for the far right and occasionally question why I bring my faith to the work of social activism. I tell them that when you try to have a political conversation without the moral context, you are not only giving away ground that we should never yield, but you are also contradicting history. Every movement in America that has made a significant impact has had a deep moral framework. The fight against slavery had a moral center. The fight for labor rights had a deep moral center. In the fight for women's suffrage, one of its leaders, Sojourner Truth, emphasized herself to be in God when she said in her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”: “Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him.” All these movements drew on the interconnected tenets of faith, righteousness and justice.
After the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a man of God with the principles of morality and justice squarely on his side, the conservative right decided never again to allow a person to claim that source of authority. It worked deliberately to redefine moral issues. It no longer wanted the debate to be focused on economic justice, housing and health care. Instead the conservative right pushed abortion, prayer in schools and being anti-gay as the new focus for politicians of faith. From television preachers to lawmakers across the country, these became the only faith-based issues that were discussed. That is why so many Americans, to this day, associate morality and faith with those matters, while treating civil rights as a secular affair. We cannot allow this bait and switch to succeed.
We call the movement Moral Mondays because we believe that the civil rights community must always work within a deep moral framework. The other side has misused and abused “morality” for too long. Starting here and now, we boldly take it back.