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Grassroots Leader Rev. Dr. William Barber on the Fight for Voting, Civil Rights in North Carolina

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Early voting begins in North Carolina on Thursday, nearly two months before Election Day. Once again, the state is seen as a key battleground state. In 2008, President Obama won the state becoming the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter in 1976. We’re joined by Rev. Dr. William Barber, a grassroots leader deeply involved in the fight to preserve voting rights in North Carolina and to mobilize unregistered voters. Barber is president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and serves as pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church Disciples of Christ in Goldsboro. He successfully campaigned for same-day registration and early voting in North Carolina and helped win passage of the state’s Racial Justice Act, which allows North Carolina death row inmates to reduce their sentences to life in prison without parole in certain circumstances when race played a factor in their trial or sentencing. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, “Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency.” We’re here in North Carolina, in Charlotte, where the Democratic National Convention is taking place. We’re covering it inside and out. I’m Amy Goodman.

Early voting begins in North Carolina on Thursday, nearly two months before Election Day. Once again, the state is seen as a key battleground state. In 2008, President Obama won the state, becoming the first Democrat to do so since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Our next guest is deeply involved in the fight to preserve voting rights in North Carolina and to mobilize unregistered voters. Reverend Dr. William Barber is president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP. He serves as pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church Disciples of Christ in Goldsboro. He successfully campaigned for same-day registration and early voting in North Carolina and helped win passage of North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act. The act allows North Carolina death row prisoners to reduce their sentences to life in prison without parole in certain circumstances when race played a factor in their trial or sentencing.

Reverend Dr. William Barber, we welcome you to Democracy Now! right here is Charlotte. Welcome.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Thank you so much, Amy. It’s good to be with you this morning.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk with you about voting rights, but I was wondering if you can start off by giving our listeners and viewers around the world a kind of tour of North Carolina through the decades. Where are we right now? Talk about North Carolina in terms of voting rights, in terms of equality and racial justice.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: You know, it’s an important place to start, because so much of our conversation politically today is ahistorical myth or often mythical. It doesn’t really deal with where we really come from to understand where we are. One of the best places to start, Amy, is right after the Civil War in 1868, all over the South, but let me talk about North Carolina. Blacks and whites came together in what was called “fusion politics.” Now, it wasn’t white women, but it was black men and white men.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait. This is after the Civil War?

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: This is right after the Civil War. The first thing they did in North Carolina was they rewrote the Constitution. And when they rewrote the Constitution, they put several things in that constitution—the Equal Protection Clause—in fact, language in our constitution that was not in many of the other Southern constitutions. They guaranteed the right to education for all people, and they protected voting rights. In essence, you had this fusion politics. You had more African Americans serving in the North Carolina legislature between 1868 and 1898 than we have today. Throughout the South, most legislatures now were controlled by this new fusion politics, this broad electorate, and some of them were controlled by majority black legislators.

Now, what did they do immediately? As a part of what we call “Reconstruction,” they passed voting rights, educational rights, labor rights, progressive tax policy, and they kept that coalition together. But within four years, it was under attack. The old planters, the people that had been a part of the slave system couldn’t stand it. They rolled out campaigns of hate. They rolled out campaigns of violence and political propaganda. And what did they immediately try to do? Roll back voting rights roll back educational rights, roll back labor rights, roll back progressive tax. By 1898, there was a massive riot in Wilmington. Three to 5 percent of the entire population was killed. The whole attempt of the riots in Wilmington was to roll back all of these progressive ideals that blacks and whites, through this coalition of fusion politics, had put in place. That ended the first Reconstruction.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to stop you for a minute. Wilmington riot—explain what the Wilmington riot was.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: It started in—well, there was this backlash of those who wanted a more homogeneous society, did not want to see this kind of fusion, and so there was this vicious backlash. In 1896, there was a plan launched by three—the Charlotte Observer, News Observer, the media—a guy by the name of Furnifold Simmons organized it, you know, politically. And Charles B. Aycock led an effort to spread propaganda, that if you don’t stop this coalition of blacks and white fusion, his argument was, it’s going to hurt white women, that your daughters will be under attack. So the Wilmington riots was November the 10th.



AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about the Charlotte Observer, the newspaper here in town—

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: The newspaper.

AMY GOODMAN: —the Raleigh News & Observer.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: Two newspapers leading this.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: The families of those newspapers led the propaganda. Remember, a lot of people didn’t write, read at that time. So what they did were political cartoons that would show blacks and whites who were joined together as vampires, and then it would be like little white girls, you know, in the corner. And it was a suggestion that this coalition, that was actually promoting progressive ideals, was dangerous to North Carolina and dangerous to America.

On November 10, 1898, the riots begun. Blacks and whites who were fusionists, coalitionists, were driven out of the city, taken out of office, and 3 to 5 percent of the city was killed. And after the Wilmington riots, it was sent all over the country: this is how you keep the government in the permanent hands of the white man. These riots preceded the Springfield, Illinois riots. And after that, that basically ended Reconstruction in North Carolina. And similarly, it happened around the South.

You get another period around the 1950s and '60s. Again we see a coalition coming together—blacks, whites, Jews, Christians, milling together—the civil rights movement. And what do we get? Focus on voting rights, labor rights, educational rights, a progressive tax policy, through coalition. But remember, by 1968, the leaders have been attacked, the policy has been attacked, Nixon is now running. And what does he implement? A new Southern strategy. The basis of that Southern strategy is to go after voting rights, educational rights, labor rights, progressive tax policy, and anybody in the leadership that was trying to move this nation forward. So, in a nutshell, to understand where we are now, we have had, at every point when we've tried to reconstruct this country, a series of attacks that always have four attacks. They attack voting rights, labor rights, educational rights, and progressive tax policy, and the leaders of the coalition.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we talk about where we are now, I just wanted to go to the issue of the sit-ins, the lunch counter sit-ins—


AMY GOODMAN: —for people to understand how significant Charlotte was in all of this. Yesterday we visited the Levine Museum of the New South.


AMY GOODMAN: Tom Hanchett took us around. And one of the features within the museum is a lunch counter. It’s a lunch counter that people here in Charlotte, African Americans, sat in. It features a video, an interview with Charles Jones, the leader of the 1960 sit-in.

JOSEPH CHARLES JONES: I was driving back from Washington, D.C., at about 5:00 in the morning and heard a news report that four students have gone to Woolworth’s in Greensboro, sat there, did not move, and insisted on service. And I said, “Yes! That’s the handle we need. That’s what we’ll do.” So I came on to Charlotte and went to the student council meeting—I was vice president of the student council, Johnson Smith University—and announced that “Tomorrow, gentlemen and ladies, I’m going down to Woolworth’s. I’ll be well dressed, if anybody wants to join me. We’re going to be nonviolent. We’re going to be everything our grandparents have taught us to be, and parents—polite, intelligent. But we’re not going to give up until we open the lunch counters.” I thought perhaps a handful of people would join me. The next morning, there were more than 200 Johnson Smith University students waiting when I got there. And from that point, we went downtown, went into Woolworth’s and opened—and sat at all those lunch counters. Then the group spilled over to Kress and Belk’s and one or two other places. And leadership emerged, and they were coming to me for guidance. And we occupied all of the lunch counters in downtown Charlotte on that first day and caught Charlotte off guard.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Charles [Jones], leader of the Charlotte lunch counter sit-in, inspired by the other sit-ins, in Greensboro, in particular, that really paved the way. How significant—that was Charles Jones. How significant was this moment?

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Well, it’s critical. Remember, we had the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Then you had a massive campaign. In fact, the North Carolina NAACP filed more suits during that period of time than any other state conference in the country to desegregate schools. You had the sit-ins, which marked the young people coming in, again marking a kind of fusion politics, blacks and whites. You not only had Charlotte, you had Durham, you had Greensboro, you had the students at A&T, the students at Bennett, you had High Point. You had SNCC coming and being formed in the 1960s at Shaw University. There was extraordinary activity. My own parents—I came back to North Carolina in the 1960s, late 1960s, because my parents were recruited back to help integrate the school system in Washington County, because, as of 1968, 14 years—excuse me, yeah, 14 years after Brown, the school systems in eastern North Carolina were still not desegregated, though the law had been in place for 14 years.

So, again, what the sit-in movements represent, like in the 1868, in the 1960s this new fusion, this new way of seeing politics, this coming together of people and diversity, trying to get us, if you will, to this second Reconstruction, the fulfillment of the things that had been aborted in the 1800s. And—but at every turn, Amy, what you get was a massive reaction—people getting arrested, people getting killed, the politics becoming more conservative, an attempt to push back toward states’ rights. So at each turn where we’ve tried to move toward reconstructing this nation, there’s been a massive pushback. And if you understand that history, you understand why right now, after the election of President Obama in 2008, the most diverse coalition-based electorate we’ve seen in this state ever, and across this country, then you understand why there is such a pushback by those who tend to want a more homogeneous reality, because any time you broaden and deepen and widen the electorate, we have the possibility of moving a little bit closer to the noble ideas that we have listed. So, what are we seeing now? The most regressive, race-based attack on voting rights since the 19th century. If you understand the attempts throughout history to always turn back coalition politics and move this nation forward, you understand what’s happening now.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read an apology that was written by the editors of the Raleigh News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer in 2006. They did this whole series.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: They wrote, quote, “Again we confront the role played by the press in firing the hatreds that led white vigilantes to overthrow Wilmington’s elected municipal government and wantonly to kill black residents. This newspaper was a leader in that propaganda effort under editor and publisher Josephus Daniels.”

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Josephus Daniels, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: “Although the paper no longer is owned by Daniels’ heirs, an apology for the acts of someone whom we continue to salute in a different context on this page and for the misdeeds of the paper as an institution is perfectly in order, and so we offer that apology today.” That was an editorial in the Raleigh News & Observer. My colleague, Juan González, a co-host on Democracy Now!, wrote in News for All the People, his book about Josephus Daniels—he was a former secretary of the Navy.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Secretary of the Navy, yeah. Give him a cup of joe, the coffee line, you know. But I wish my friend Dr. Tyson was here, as well, Tim Tyson, who’s written on this, because that’s an apology, but what we’ve asked for, the civil rights community, and we presented before the Wilmington Riot Commission, and there’s a commission that made a bunch of recommendations beyond just apology, because, number one, Wilmington was the closest port to Europe and Africa controlled by blacks and whites working together. Wilmington was what Atlanta is today. It would have been an Atlanta in North Carolina. All of that was destroyed, when that Gatling gun came in and people were killed and 3 to 5 percent of the population—some say more per capita than on 9/11, if you look at the stats back then. It tore apart, you know, voting rights.

So, Josephus Daniels becomes secretary of the Navy, but Charles B. Aycock becomes governor. And part of what they do then is bring back poll taxes and grandfather clause, and the participation of the black vote drops to nearly zero in many places in eastern North Carolina and across North Carolina, and the last African-American congressman of the Reconstruction era, George White, virtually was run out of office. And we did not have another African-American congressperson until 1990, which was 25 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act. There’s never been a discussion about even economic reparation—not to individuals, but the kind of reparations that ought to go into that area, because all that was lost—the businesses, the economic structures—none of that has ever been dealt with.

And by the way, Amy, most of your readers may not know that all of those counties that were affected by the Wilmington riots are still not covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, because the Wilmington riots was not official history. It was not included in the testimony that talked about disenfranchisement in North Carolina. So when the counties were decided on, which counties in North Carolina would be under the Voting Rights Act, only 40 out of a hundred. Only 40 counties out of a hundred are covered in North Carolina, despite this ugly, mean, violent history of disenfranchisement.

AMY GOODMAN: So, now, you are coming together, pushing voting rights.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Voting, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, you have had a history now of working in coalition. For example, with—on the Amendment 1, same-sex marriage, talk about how that started the kind of coalition building.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Actually, before then—and, I mean, let me—and that’s important that you note that. In 2006, when I became president of the North Carolina NAACP, along with others who joined, we recognized that we needed to push a 21st century form of fusion politics, that in the South, if you’re going to organize, you’ve got to have an anti-racist, anti-poverty, anti-militarism agenda that can draw people from multiple areas. You’ve got to help educational advocates under—with environmental advocates who understand the same people voting against educational equality are voting against environmental justice, are voting against labor rights. We formed a coalition called Historic Thousands on Jones Street in 2006. We also came to understand, if you’re going to work in the South, you’ve got to target the state capitol, because most of the regressive things that hurt us, in terms of voting rights and labor rights, come out of state capitols. So we formed a coalition, then 60 organizations, now 140, representing nearly two million people in the state.

And the first thing we passed in that coalition, working with North Carolina Fair Share, Democracy North Carolina, was same-day registration and early voting. We had been pushing it for years. But when we pushed this coalition together, we won, with the help of progressive legislators. Now, people said it couldn’t happen. They said in a Southern state you would never get this kind of broad same-day registration, early voting, Sunday voting and Saturday voting. We won. Now, here’s the notion of that. In the 2008 election, North Carolina’s voting participation grew greater than any other state in the nation. Sixty-one percent of North Carolinians used the same-day registration and early voting. Nearly one million black and brown people participated in same-day registration and early voting. We—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain same-day registration and early voting.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Same-day means you can—well, in North Carolina, you can go on the same day, register at the poll and vote on the same day. Now, prior to—wherever those sites are set up, you can go in, register and vote. But you also have Sunday voting and Saturday voting. If you look at it, President Obama, for instance—and I’m not endorsing him, I’m just talking history—he lost on Election Day. People often say he won North Carolina. He only won by 14,000 votes, which is 140 votes per county. But actually, he lost on Election Day. But what happened? Because we, the coalition, blacks and whites and Latinos, LGBT community, labor and faith, had formed together and pushed forward this agenda, the participation in early voting of students, of older people, of blacks and whites and brown people, gave him a victory, a margin.

And that is why, after 2008 in North Carolina, we have seen now an ultra-conservative, tea party-backed, Republican-led legislature focus on everything to divide us. Think about it. We have 1.6 million people in poverty in North Carolina, 600,000 children, more than we had in 1969. The implosion of 2007 just exacerbated an already bad problem. Forty-four percent of African-American children, 27—40 percent of white children in poverty. But what did this legislature focus on this year? Number one, attacking voting rights. They tried to pass voter ID. Our coalition stood up, gave the government the strength. She vetoed 18 straight vetoes, and one of them was voter ID, so we don’t have voter ID.

AMY GOODMAN: You have had run-ins with Koch brother-funded actions.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. Yeah, Civitas and—

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what that is?

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Well, the Koch brothers and some of the leaders of a group called Civitas are highly connected to the tea party elements and the Koch brother money. Art Pope—

AMY GOODMAN: And the Koch brothers are the billionaire funders of the Republican Party.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Yeah, billionaire funders. And we call Art Pope in our state a little Koch brother. You know, he’s connected to that whole funding.



AMY GOODMAN: He is who?

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Art Pope, who runs Civitas, funds—he funds all these ultra-conservative groups, has spent something like $40 million of his own money to try to take over the state legislature. And they’re the ones that have pushed all of this regressive voting rights and the Amendment 1. But it was—

AMY GOODMAN: Amendment 1 on same-sex marriage.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Amendment 1 on same-sex marriage. But we clearly know what’s up. The reality is, it was to—they could not handle this diverse electorate that has now been produced by these progressive voting laws that we have in a Southern state. And so, Amy, what we saw in this, they, instead of dealing with the issue of poverty, instead of dealing with the issue of jobs, instead of dealing—we lost 300,000 jobs because of the bad policies of the last administration, during the Bush era. But instead of dealing with that, what did they do? They attacked voting rights, tried to pass voter ID. We stopped it.

AMY GOODMAN: When you were speaking in this very place yesterday—we’re in the people’s—the people’s space—

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Right, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: —just outside the convention center—you were talking about the history of the Koch brothers family and the kind of work that you’ve been doing in North Carolina.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Oh, sure. Well, again, again, if you’re ahistorical—one of my friends said, if you’re ahistorical, you’re racist, because you don’t understand the narrative, the racialized narrative. Charles and David Koch’s daddy was—


REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Fred Koch, who helped found the John Birch Society. Trace that history. The John Birch Society was one of the most vigilant opponents of civil rights, of the NAACP. They called for the impeachment of Justice Warren, who was not a liberal, when he ruled in the Brown decision. They went after Eisenhower because of some of his ideas around civil rights. So, their money is attached to a long history. I call it a nightmarish, regressivist history. And if you understand that, then you understand they’re basically still trying to fulfill their father’s dream.

AMY GOODMAN: We are, in the next segment, going to be talking with Baldemar Velásquez of FLOC, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Oh, good for him, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: In the last seconds that we have with you, Reverend Barber, explain how you’re organizing with labor around voting rights.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: Well, I met with my good friend—I met a couple of days ago with Michael Mulgrew of UFT and George Gresham of 1199.

AMY GOODMAN: United Federation of Teachers.

REV. DR. WILLIAM BARBER: That’s right, United Federation of Teachers, 1199, Bill Lucy. We can no longer give up 19 Southern states, bottom line. If we’re going to organize, we’ve got to take race and class seriously. So, what we are arguing is, and one of the visions we’re trying to put forward, is that this coalition-based 21st century fusion politics works. We’ve seen it work right here in North Carolina. What we need to do is target Southern states. We need a faith, labor, a civil rights, LBGT, broad black, progressive, white coalition.

We need to—I would love to see this vision, Amy. Let me lay it out for you. Four organizers per electoral vote in key Southern states taking seriously the issue of race, taking seriously the need for restorative justice, practical economics and a moral argument that says what ought to be at the center of our agenda is economic sustainability, poverty and labor rights, educational equality, healthcare, dealing with disparities in the criminal justice system, and protecting and defending voting rights. If we can do that, and not just in an election year, but have a four-year strategy, two election cycles, major organizers on the ground, civil rights and labor and faith working together in coalition, building statewide—you can’t do this from the top down. If you want a national movement, you’ve got to think states. You’ve got to think states and build from the bottom up. It can’t be people helicoptering in. We need indigenous leadership, black, white and Latino, working together in broad coalitions, targeting these state capitols, going after the lack of labor rights, like right here in North Carolina. State and municipal employees, it’s still illegal for them to organize because of a Jim Crow law passed in 1959. But if we come together, just like we won same-day registration, we can roll that back and build a new kind of electorate and a new kind of politics.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Dr. William Barber, I want thank you very much for being with us, president of the North Carolina NAACP. When we come back, Baldemar Velásquez—he’s head of FLOC, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee—as we broadcast from just outside the Democratic National Convention here in Charlotte, North Carolina. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.

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