The believers are having a hard time standing tall.
There are a couple dozen of them and they’ve been on their feet for more than an hour, holding up sheets of paper that say things like WE STAND TO ESTABLISH JUSTICE AS A MORAL ISSUE or PREACH GOOD NEWS TO THE POOR. Now they’re bracing their elbows against their sides. The message is getting heavy.
It’s midmorning on New Year’s Eve—not quite eight weeks since Donald Trump was elected president, not quite three weeks before he takes office—and the believers have come from all over the country to resist. They’ve gathered here in Washington at National City Christian Church, where Lyndon Johnson worshipped; his favorite spot, six rows back, was named the president’s pew. Today the church is hosting a teach-in so activists can learn the best ways to protest back home. Part of the price of entry, it turns out, is participating in a well-crafted photo op, holding up the signs at the press conference that kicks off the event. The believers and their signs create a frame around the man in the middle, a preacher from North Carolina named the Reverend William Barber II. He is the main reason they came.
During the press conference, while others take their turns at the pulpit, Barber leans back on a wooden barstool. At fifty-three, he has a severe arthritic condition in his spine and bursitis in his left knee. It hurts to sit and it hurts to stand. When he’s bent over in the background and propped against his stool, it’s hard to see the man Cornel West described as “the closest person we have to Martin Luther King Jr. in our midst.”
But now he rises up toward the microphone, and the believers stand straighter.
Barber’s ecumenical activist group, Repairers of the Breach, has crafted a letter to Trump asking to talk to him about voting rights and poverty and justice and health care. They’re not going to Mar-a-Lago. They want him to come to church.
“We know by scriptural tradition that even Moses talked to Pharaoh,” Barber tells the believers. “That Elijah talked to Ahab. That Jesus challenged the powers of their day. Dr. King met with Johnson, who had been a former segregationist. And he didn’t always get what he wanted. But he served notice.”
The believers have come to the teach-in because Barber served notice in North Carolina. Since 2013, he has led a series of rallies in Raleigh that have come to be known as Moral Mondays. From the beginning, they challenged the state’s Republican-dominated legislature and its Republican governor, Pat McCrory. That first year, more than nine hundred protesters, including Barber himself, were arrested for filling the legislative building and refusing to leave. They persisted. Voters paid attention. Moral Mondays helped defeat McCrory in last year’s election, even as the state turned red in the presidential race. Barber spent 2016 traveling to twenty-two states to build similar movements around the country. But as he worked to battle the Pat McCrorys at the state level, the nation produced a much bigger opponent. And now the question is whether Barber can make his voice strong enough—and his movement large enough—to take on President Trump.
The opposition to Trump so far has been powerful but leaderless—millions of bodies but not many faces. But Barber is working his way toward the middle of the frame. He’s a regular on MSNBC and on Roland Martin’s show on TV One. He has a PR advance team and a video crew to livestream his sermons. He has traveled to New Jersey to speak to union workers and to a church in Flint to preach about the water crisis there. He helped lead a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” march of 1965. He went back to Raleigh for a civil-rights rally that drew tens of thousands of people. And the day before the House was supposed to vote on a health-care plan that would cut benefits for millions, Barber led a group of clergy and activists to the Capitol to protest. One by one, they placed a pile of holy books outside Paul Ryan’s office. People talk about swearing on a stack of Bibles, but it’s not often someone is confronted with a literal stack of Bibles. Ryan later pulled the plan from the floor before it came to a vote. Maybe the Lord really does work in mysterious ways.
But back at the Washington teach-in on New Year’s Eve, Barber is wearing his followers out. Just when it looks like the press conference is over, he comes back around to take questions. He had told the people holding signs not to lock their knees. Some didn’t listen. A couple of them sway like pines in the wind. One woman drops her sign and heads for a side door, looking queasy. Barber keeps talking. Surely he is hurting, too. But he has one last point to make.
“You never march without a map,” he says. “You don’t just start protesting. You don’t just start having civil disobedience. You have to have a map. What is it? What is the moral imperative and the moral direction, and what is the moral imagination?
“The teach-ins are going to be happening across the nation, because the teach-ins are designed to build a movement. … This is serious business. And we are serious people. God bless you.”
The camera shuts off. The believers drop their arms and bend their knees. Barber smiles. “That was good,” he says. “Thank you for holding on.”
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