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Pastor and activist William J. Barber II wins MacArthur ‘genius’ grant

The Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the N.C. state chapter of the NAACP and architect of the protests known as "Moral Monday," speaks during a Bible study at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. in this June 24, 2015, file photo. Barber, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., and founder of Repairers of the Breach, a leadership development organization, was named one of this year's MacArthur fellows by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation on Oct. 4, 2018. In 2017, Barber began a series of "Moral Monday" rallies outside the North Carolina state Capitol to protest laws that suppress voter turnout. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

(RNS) — The Rev. William J. Barber II, architect of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina and leader of the resurgent Poor People’s Campaign, has won a MacArthur “genius” award.

Barber, 55, pastor of Goldsboro, N.C.’s Greenleaf Christian Church and former president of the state’s NAACP chapter, has long been viewed as a rising star in progressive activist circles.

At the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, he brought the audience to its feet with a speech that charged Republicans with misusing faith for political purposes and espoused social justice concerns as essential to American democracy.

Earlier this year Barber resurrected the Poor People’s Campaign, first organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. before his death to lift up issues of poverty, racism and voter suppression through a series of rallies and demonstrations. The 40-day campaign culminated with a demonstration on the National Mall in Washington in June.

RELATED: Poor People’s Campaign rally ends with vows to keep organizing and protesting

Barber was unavailable for comment on Thursday (Oct. 4) according to a spokesperson, because he was arrested in Chicago while participating in a “Fight for $15” rally convened by fast food and other workers demanding higher wages and the right to unionize.

“Merging moral and activist traditions, Barber is providing a faith-based framework for action that strengthens civic engagement and inspires the country to imagine a more humane society,” the MacArthur Foundation said of Barber. As one of 25 recipients of the so-called genius award, Barber will receive a grant of $625,000 paid over five years.

The Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, speaks at the event on the National Mall on June 23, 2018. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Barber is one of 25 MacArthur Fellows announced Thursday (Oct. 4) by the Chicago-based foundation. They include a composer, several artists, a poet, a mathematician, a psychologist, a computer programmer and a community organizer.

It is not the first time the MacArthur Foundation has awarded its prestigious fellowships to a clergy person. The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a Roman Catholic priest and now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, won the award in 1984.

In a YouTube video prepared for the official announcement, Barber said: “My drive comes from a number of places. My father early on taught me that the only purpose of life is to make a difference in the lives of others and to stand up for what is right and just and full of love and full of compassion.”

In 2013, Barber began a series of demonstrations called “Moral Mondays” intended to challenge local Republican measures to cut unemployment benefits, health care funding and environmental regulations. Police estimated weekly attendance of more 2,500 on the lawn of the state legislative building. More than 900 demonstrators were arrested when they tried to enter the state Capitol.

The rallies, which became weekly events, were credited with helping defeat then Republican governor, Pat McCrory, and elect Democrat Roy Cooper.

With his bearlike stature and thundery oratory, Barber lent the movement the feel of a church revival. Demonstrations began with prayer, and Barber’s speeches were inflected with biblical references to Pharaoh, Goliath, good and evil.

MacArthur’s webpage said it awards fellowships to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.”

About the author

Yonat Shimron

Yonat Shimron is an RNS National Reporter and Senior Editor.


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  • The Reverend Barber is one of the last authentic voices of reason and religious freedom left in America. So many others have sold their souls for thirty pieces of Russian silver.

  • William does not appear to have missed many meals, so I am assuming his salary/comp package exceeds $ 15/hour. Truthfully, worker wages were depressed once NAFTA became law because of the evaporation of decent middle class manufacturing and assembly jobs. President Obama assured us that 1.) those jobs would not return and 2.) growth could not exceed 4 %. Yet, with the policies of the Trump administration we are seeing exactly that. I am certain the market demand for workers will give a healthy push upward for worker wages.

  • Your first line was remarkably uncivil and nasty.

    Wages have depressed sharply across the board under Trump along with huge increases in healthcare costs and reduced services from employer based policies.

    You are full of it.

    Market demand for workers without effective enforced labor laws and lack of organized labor translates to people getting less for working longer. But in reality conditions for working and middle class have never been worse than right now.

  • Congratulations Reverend Barber. Your compassion and passionate desire for feeding the hungry and looking out for disenfranchised people is remarkable. I know you’ve labored long and hard for the causes of voting and justice, and this award cannot replace the hours given to the struggle. But God knows when we need the encouragement to continue. Praying your continued healing and work for the cause!

  • Actually, this Rev. Barber DOES seem to be a talented go-getter for the Liberal Trump-Hating faction. If I were an (Alt-) Liberal Democrat with really deep pockets, I’d probably have given Barber some kind of monetary kudos too.

    (But alas, I am not, nor have aspirations for, either category.)

    So anyway, I will continue to oppose Barber’s various leftist moves in my posts, but I’m not going to rag on the Left-Wing MacArthur Gang for merely honoring one of their own.

  • Well deserved. What a startling contrast to the phony pastors scamming their “flock” for another new jet.

  • You really hate Trump’s way-too-low unemployment rate, don’t you?

    (We black Americans like it, but we’re keeping our mouths shut on that topic, so as not to p*ss off our Democratic Party friends. But please don’t tell anybody!)

  • Worker wages began their slide when unions were targeted by Republican corporate lackeys.

    As to returning jobs, there aren’t enough to spit at, nor are there likely to be more. Trump’s China tariffs simply raise the cost of goods Americans buy, while manufacturers that do leave China are moving to other Asian nations, not the US.

    In fact the jobs “lost” to Mexico over 20 years of NAFTA are routinely destroyed by the normal churn of the US economy every three weeks.

  • The decrease in the unemployment rate has simply continued from Obama to Trump, including the rate for African Americans, with very little difference in the slope.

    Of course, Obama didn’t resort to irresponsibly ballooning the federal deficit, once the crisis he inherited from the GOP was mitigated. Trump and the GOP are pursuing a short-sighted, Keynesian-style punp-priming during a remarkably durable expansion. The costs will exceed the benefits for all but the richest.

  • I would think your worship of Trump disqualifies you as a Christian. Especially as so much of Trump’s conduct, and so many of his policies fly in the face of Christian teaching.

  • What worship of Trump? There’s clearly nothing to worship.
    It’s just that President Trump (and his Supreme Court nominees!) have actually turned out to be the best choices that a weakened, troubled, backslidden America could mercifully get at this time.

    (Always go with your best domino when the game is on the line!)

  • Both nominal wages and real wages have gone up since Trump became President.

    Productivity is increasing at a higher rate than wages, which is what is needed for employers to recapitalize the manufacturing sector.

    Unemployment for black is at a half century low.

    Unemployment in general is at the lowest since the last year of the Bush presidency.

  • Apparently helping to railroad the Duke Lacrosse team into false rape charges paid off, even as it failed. The good reverend was a very early adopter of “presumed innocent doesn’t apply to white men.”

    Good work, Rev!

  • Your first remark was ignorant. The Rev. Barber has had an incurable autoimmune disease (ankylosing spondylitis) for 30 years. He used to need a walker and now uses a cane. You might want to think charitably that his appearance is connected with his disease. But, no, you choose to be flip and cruel.

  • U.S. Wage Gains Pick Up to 2.9% While Payrolls Rise 201,000. By Sho Chandra. September 7, 2018

    In April of 2017, Trump said in a presidential executive order that H-1B visas, which are given to skilled workers, should be harder to get. Now it appears to be burying the companies and individuals applying for them in extra paperwork, including extra “requests for evidence.”

    The US caps the number of new H-1B visas it issues each year at 85,000 but renews tens of thousands more. The number of applicants slipped 15.8% from fiscal year 2016 to 2017, and the number of overall H1-B visas issued dropped 43.3%, a decrease of 151,033.


  • Backsliding would be any return to the darkness of myth that science and knowledge have been steadily pushing back. There’s a reason the Dark Ages were so named.

    Fortunately, more and more Americans are looking at myth and finding it wanting.

  • Actually, real wages have barely ticked up. Hourly earnings were up 0.2% in the 12 months ended in August, with non-supervisory and production workers seeing only 0.1% increase over a year. That amounts to about $0.02/hour. The latter category accounts for about 80% of non-governmental, non-farm employees. Further, the numbers would be even worse if not for a number of cities and states mandating minimum wage increases.

    Thanks to the Trump/GOP deficits, the cost of a $200k mortgage increased $120/month, swamping the wage gain pittance.

    Productivity growth is and will be hampered by Trump’s foolish gutting of basic research, and the irresponsible, ballooning deficits d/t tax cuts and spending. These crowd out needed improvement to infrastructure. Not that productivity growth is particularly robust in any event—1.3% from Q2 2017 to Q2 2018.

  • You might think so but look at market response in terms of the stock value since Amazpn announced it would pay all workers at least $15 an hour.

  • Every year, American taxpayers are billed about $2.4 billion to pay for the births of illegal aliens, according to research by the Center for Immigration Studies Director of Research, Steven Camarotta. The children of illegal aliens are commonly known as “anchor babies,” as they anchor their illegal alien and noncitizen parents in the U.S. and eventually are allowed to bring an unlimited number of foreign relatives to the country through the process known as “chain migration.”

  • How American Citizens Finance $18.5 Billion In Health Care For Unauthorized Immigrants.

    California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who is running for governor, said in an interview released Tuesday that he like to see the state pay for universal healthcare for all illegal immigrants.

    More than 100,000 undocumented adult immigrants in California would be eligible for state-subsidized health coverage under a major budget push announced by Assembly Democrats on Monday. Lawmakers are asking Gov. Jerry Brown for $1 billion, a large portion of which would fund a major expansion of Medi-Cal, the state’s low-income health care program. Roughly a quarter of the request – $250 million – would extend Medi-Cal to undocumented immigrant adults who are ineligible for coverage.

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