MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Because this is the beginning of the new year, we decided to look ahead to 2017 by checking in with some of the people we spoke with over the course of the past year about their hopes for the new year. The Rev. William Barber II is one of those people. He's president of the North Carolina NAACP, founder of the Moral Monday rallies there, some of the longest sustained civil rights demonstrations in the modern era. He's also president of a progressive movement called Repairers of the Breach. Rev. Barber joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios. You might remember that yesterday I spoke with Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina. So began - I began our conversation with Rev. Barber by asking the same question I posed to Senator Scott, which is what was his take on the most consequential event of 2016?
WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, actually when I look at this year, I've been deeply troubled by the moral inconsistency and the moral trouble that we have in this country. When you can literally run for office and announce that if you elect me, I will take health care for millions of people. When you can say if you elect me, I'm going to turn immigrants away from a country of immigrants. I want to be more focused on nuclear weapons and war than peace and negotiations. To me, that is consequential because it says that we need a moral revolution of values.
I think that what's so concerning to me is the way in which this political - particularly at the presidential level was handled. You think about what we didn't talk about in a time of deep voter suppression and racist-based gerrymandering. We didn't have a major presidential debate on that. We didn't have a major debate on what it would actually do to repeal health care. We didn't have a major debate on living wages. So in some ways we went through a campaign based on innuendoes and insults without really going in-depth on the issues, and I think that is to the detriment of the soul and the heart of this country.
MARTIN: Given all of that, how does the country move forward?
BARBER: Well, several things. First of all, I think that those of us who believe in justice and liberation and love for all people have to declare that standing down is not an option. We need to, number one, call all people of conscience, whether that conscience is morality is driven by the constitutional faith to stand up.
MARTIN: And what does that mean? What should the posture of Democrats be?
BARBER: One writer, Walter Brueggemann, said you can't have moral prophetic implementation until you have moral imagination. So we have to take on, I think, the fallacy and the heresy of so-called white evangelicalism that has had a lot of influence on our body politic, but it has this limited moral perspective of praying in school or where you stand on abortion, where you stand against homosexuality. We have written that President Trump and requested if he so desires a meeting before the inauguration to really give him counsel from the prophetic tradition, as opposed to just counsel this lining up with this extreme form of religiosity.
MARTIN: What I hear you saying is that the appropriate posture should be to try to engage with the administration around common interests.
BARBER: That's one of the steps. You know, Dr. King talked about six steps to nonviolent civil disobedience. So I'm fully in that we will have to protest, but the first thing you have to do is be willing to sit down with your adversary and give them counsel. I don't think it's about congratulations and cajoling. It is about saying listen, these are the moral values of our Constitution. The first principle of our Constitution established justice. The first principle of faith is how do you treat the poor and the least of these?
MARTIN: I have to ask you about North Carolina. Your state was quite a bit in the spotlight in 2016, from the HB2, the so-called bathroom bill, requiring people to use the bathroom of the gender in which they were born. Also the recent move by the state legislature and governor to limit the power of the newly elected governor. Given all of that, what is your role there in the coming year?
BARBER: Here's what you should learn from North Carolina. We won a three-year battle, a moral battle. Wheb people told us we should just go home, we should just give up, we didn't. And because of that, Trumpism (ph) did not sweep North Carolina. Progressives won the governor's seat, the auditor's seat, the secretary of state seat, and an African-American runs 76 counties - and over 300,000 vote margin for the Supreme Court in North Carolina. We have proven that a sustained moral movement can in fact take on extremism and can bring people together in the South, particularly where the Southern strategy has worked so hard for the last 50 years to divide people along the lines of race and class.
MARTIN: Well, what lesson do you draw from the results of 2016? I mean, on the one hand your preferred candidate Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a wide margin. And yet, people who don't share your point of view are in control of the majority of state legislatures around the country, have consolidated their position in state leadership. What lesson do you draw?
BARBER: There's this movement out there that has to be galvanized. And what we have to do is understand that in every age we have to stand up. This is not the first time America has elected a president that has espoused racism. We talk about Steve Bannon being - and alt-right - being in the Oval - alt-wrong - being in the Oval Office today, where 100 years ago, "Birth Of A Nation" was played in the Oval Office by Woodrow Wilson. What did W.E.B. Du Bois do? What did black and white people do? Then they stood up and they pushed back. When Lyndon Baines Johnson was elected as a Democrat, he was a segregationist. He had no intention on doing the voting rights. What did the movement do? They stood up and they fought back, and they pushed and they changed a moral climate.
So somebody there, they said, well, we did a tweet or we did a rally, it didn't work. I'm in your studios and here we are, the first of the year, the Montgomery boycott would have been in its 31st day (laughter) - in its 31st day and would go on to last over 350 day - almost, 300, I think, and 85 days. What we have to do is recognize we're in a moment that requires sustained moral action, sustained moral challenge. If you register 30 percent of the unregistered African-Americans in the former confederate states from North Carolina to Texas and find a way to bring them together with progressive whites, Latinos, you change the map. If you change the map in the South, you change the country.
MARTIN: As you face 2017, are you optimistic or pessimistic?
BARBER: I'm hopeful, which is different than being optimistic and pessimistic. It is a biblical term. It's a term of faith. It is a term that cries out even from the midst of despair. We must not give up on the heart of this country. They didn't give up in slavery. If they didn't give up in times much worse than this, surely we cannot give up now. We must fight. And I believe that America still has a heartbeat and a pulse, and we have to continue to push it and revive it.
MARTIN: That's the Rev. William Barber II. He's the president of the North Carolina NAACP, pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C. His latest book is "The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, And The Rise Of A New Justice Movement." He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios for this new year edition. Rev. Barber, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BARBER: Well, thank you and God bless.
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