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Activist, Preacher, Civil Disobedience Leader: Rev. William Barber on North Carolina's Landmark Voting Rights Trial

On the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Barber is at the forefront of a new civil rights movement, called the Moral Monday movement, that's leading the fight for voting rights in the South.
Rev. Dr. William Barber II. Photo by Sara Lewkowicz/VICE News

On a humid Monday afternoon in July, Reverend William Barber, dressed in black t-shirt and slacks, stood barefoot in the carpeted lobby of a Holiday Inn in Raleigh, North Carolina. Slightly hunched, with his wooden cane hanging from a tabletop, Barber spoke emphatically about the historic voting rights trial in his home state that has consumed the last few months of his life. It was a casual style for the reverend on a Monday, considering the civil rights activist and NAACP chapter head spent the previous 13 Mondays delivering fiery sermons around the state to rally support for a case that could have lasting impact nationwide. Even in the days after the trial ended Friday, Barber has had few chances to break from his hectic routine.

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"I'm just cooling out," he said, gesturing at his feet. "[Today] is my cool out day."

Barber is a becoming a well-known personality in a new civil rights movement, what he calls a "third reconstruction period." The first reconstruction, he said, came about after the Civil War, when the emancipation of slaves was met with a violent resistance and instatement of Jim Crow-era tactics to revive white supremacy. The second reconstruction emerged almost 100 years later with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, which was met again with a bloody backlash and the assassinations of popular civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.

Barber says the election of President Barack Obama demonstrated the shifting voting demographics in the southern United States and "exposed the possibility of a third reconstruction." And he believes just like the previous reconstructions, legislators are moving to suppress the formation of this new trans-racial political movement, which brings blacks and whites together to oppose race-driven killings, biased policing, and hate crimes.

"The only way to continue to play radicalized politics is to suppress the vote," he said of state lawmakers's recent efforts to roll back voting rights and employ what he called "the worst voter suppression tactics toward minorities we've seen since the 1960s."

"What this legislature is trying to argue in court is that the federal Constitution has no ability to stop a state from setting its voting policies, even if it can be proved that they're racist," Barber added. "If they win here, they can do it anywhere. Any state can roll back provisions that have been put in place with no checks and balances."

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That contention is at the heart of the plaintiffs' case in NAACP vs. McCrory, which closed with final arguments Friday. Lawyers for the plaintiffs argue that North Carolina's Republican-controlled state legislature knowingly passed a restrictive voting law (HB589) in 2013 that would keep African Americans — who have voted overwhelmingly for Democrats since the 1930s — away from polling booths.

The suit, brought by a cluster of groups, including the North Carolina NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and the US Justice Department, seeks to nullify several provisions in HB589, including the truncating of early-voting periods by seven days, the elimination of same-day registration, and the banning of out-of-precinct provisional voting. The provisions have been and will continue to be implemented piecemeal over different election cycles through to 2016, which is when strict new photo ID requirements are set to be enforced.

Related: 50 Years after Selma March, Activists Walk Again to Restore Voting Rights in South

The North Carolina bill is considered to be one of the biggest rewrites of voting rules in the country, and passed just two months after the Supreme Court's Shelby County v. Holder ruling, which cast aside many voting protections previously provided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Under the act, any state with a history of racial discrimination — the bulk of which were in the South — had to apply for "preclearance" from the federal government before changing voting laws. But the Supreme Court decision in 2013 found the preclearance principle unconstitutional, paving the way for states to recast laws and voting districts without prior federal approval.

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Throughout the near-three week trial, many residents and activists compared North Carolina's dilemma to the one faced by black voters across the country more than 50 years ago, when civil rights leaders, including King, led activists on mass nonviolent voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 — the same year Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act into law.

The night before the North Carolina trial was set to begin on July 13, Barber delivered a rousing sermon at Winston Salem's Union Baptist Church.

"This was a racist attack on our sacred right to vote, a right that was won with blood and the lives and souls of martyrs throughout the south," said Barber. "50 years after Bloody Sunday, we find ourselves having to have our own Selma now."

The comparisons of the trial to a modern-day Selma also extend to contrasts made between Barber, 50, and King, who was 39 when he died, — not least for the men's compelling oratory skills and commanding presence. Barber, who has attended every Moral Monday march since late April, despite a congenital arthritic condition affecting the spine that makes walking slow and painful, said he is "humbled" by the comparison, but also described it as "a heavy weight, sometimes." He said he prefers to cast himself as a "servant leader" of the movement.

"Every movement will have faces, but the face of the movement must recognize he or she is not the body of the movement," he told VICE News. "The only thing you do with face, the only thing you do with your personality is you lend it to the movement."

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The strategy of the NAACP and Moral Monday movement has been to deliberately diffuse stand-out personalities like Barber. While colleagues within the organization and leaders of ally groups described Barber to VICE News as "brilliant," "inspirational," and "exactly what America needs right now," the movement does not permit any one person to appear at the podium alone on Moral Mondays or at other rallies.

"That's by design," Barber said. "We will not allow a picture to go out that suggests one man-one movement."

As he spoke, one of Barber's sons, sat patiently nearby in the hotel lobby. The quiet teen had travelled with his father from their hometown of Goldsboro, where Barber is still minister of the Greenleaf Christian Church, roughly an hour southeast of the state capital, Raleigh. Although Barber is a family man, he doesn't speak publicly about his wife and five children because of numerous death and other "serious threats" made against him — part of the "burden" of the media and public's obsession with the cult of personality that has made him at once revered and infamous to activists on both sides.

Rev. Dr. William Barber II is a Protestant minister and the current North Carolina NAACP chapter head. He wears a silver cross ring that doubles as a wedding ring on his left hand and a Masonic ring on his right. Barber is a 33rd Degree Mason, an honorary degree conferred to those most active and involved in Freemasonry. Photo by Sara Lewkowicz/VICE News 

"You go from little known to being known," he said wearily. "All of my children have made a commitment to me personally. They say 'daddy while you're out there fighting for others, we're going to do good in school, so you don't have to worry about us', and all of them want to make their own contribution. They know their legacy."

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At a recent Moral Monday rally in mid-July, shortly before the trial began, one of the activists who joined Barber at the pulpit in Winston Salem was Rosanell Eaton, a 94-year-old voting rights activist who, as a teen in the 1940s, successfully outsmarted polling officials by memorizing and reciting the preamble to the constitution at a local voting registration office. Eaton beat the system at a time when the state still imposed "literacy" and other tests on black residents when they tried to register their names on voter rolls.

Two framed photos of that recent rally, showing a smiling Eaton in her signature fedora standing close to Barber on stage, are propped on an upright piano in Eaton's home in Louisburg, North Carolina. On Monday, Eaton, a former middle school teacher, who still remembers the words of the constitution's preamble, told VICE News the she believes the rolling back of voting rights is "disgusting and ridiculous."

"I went through all that before, now we're going through it again," she said. "We shouldn't' be rolling back [voting rights], we should be going forward, not backward. That's what America's all about. That's why people come here and want to come here, because of the privilege and advantage that we have — the right to have our voices heard."

Eaton, will once again take up the fight for voting rights later this year as a plaintiff in a separate challenge to HB589's voter ID provisions. She will testify about the difficulties she had trying to renew her driver's license in April, during which time she was forced to make 10 trips and travel 252 miles between the DMV and other offices because the name on her birth certificate and other identifying documents did not match her voter registration.

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Sandra Beatty, 51, holds Jhournee, seven months, one of her seven grandchildren. Diabetes has rendered Sandra legally blind and a double amputee. She is a witness for the plaintiffs in the North Carolina Voting Rights trial of 2015. Photo by Sara Lewkowicz/VICE News

Over the course of North Carolina's voting rights trial last month, more than 40 witnesses took the stand on behalf of the plaintiffs, who argued state Republican lawmakers intentionally discriminated against minority, poor, disabled, rural, and young voters when they passed HB 589. Lawyers claimed that three months earlier, House legislators had approved a shorter version of the bill that only included voter ID provisions, but delayed it in anticipation of the Supreme Court's Shelby decision, after which legislators expanded it dramatically from 14 pages to 57, introducing broader and harsher restrictions. The revised bill zipped through both legislative chambers in just two days.

One of those witnesses is 51-year-old Sandra Beatty, who is a double amputee and legally blind as a result of her battle with diabetes. She testified via video conference last month about the complications she faced with curbside voting — an option for physically handicapped people to cast ballots outside the polling station from their car or parking lot — because of the elimination of same-day registration under HB589.

Sitting in the kitchen of her Greenville, North Carolina home, Beatty, who moved from Yonkers, New York to North Carolina in 2011, told VICE News that when she tried to vote in the October, 2014 senate election, the polling site administrators already had her name and address in the system. But it turned out that Beatty was not registered to vote. She only found out two weeks later that her ballot didn't count and was instead cast as a provisional vote, after receiving a call from lawyers at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

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"It hurt," Beatty said, clasping her hands in her lap, just above where both knees slip into rod-like prosthetics ending in laced white sneakers. "I wasn't always like this…I was once a taxpayer and a working person just like anyone else. I'm still American, I'm still human, I want to vote just like everyone else and do all the deeds I can."

Rosanell Eaton, 94, is a plaintiff in an upcoming legal challenge to the voter ID provision in North Carolina's voting law. Photo by Sara Lewkowicz/VICE News

Beatty's testimony was one of dozens that Reverend Barber said helped "debunk" the "rationale and justifications" that state lawmakers used to pass HB 589 in July 2013.

"[State legislators] called [HB589] the voting integrity act, but there's no integrity in it because [they] didn't even allow it to go before the public," he said. "Not one member of the black caucus voted for it."

"They also said it was about fraud," he added. "There's no evidence of fraud. None."

Attorneys for the state refuted the NAACP and witnesses' claims, saying the new voting laws are race neutral and apply to everyone equally. During the trial, they also emphasized that more black residents voted in 2014 elections after the bulk of new provisions came into effect, compared with 2010.

"Plaintiffs' argument is that minorities are entitled to either the equivalent of election law affirmative action or practices that are favored by political organizations dedicated to maximizing Democratic turnout," defense attorneys wrote in their trial brief. But the "challenged provisions simply repeal or scale back conveniences…in no respect do they impose additional qualifications or barriers to vote."

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But plaintiff witness Peter Levine, a Tufts University professor, testified that the increased voter turnout in 2014 was likely a result of a "blockbuster" senate race — one of the most expensive races in history, topping $100 million — that ultimately unseated the incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan, who was replaced by Republican Thom Tillis.

Every voting provision, from same-day registration to early voting periods, "Everything they touched was used disproportionately by black people and minority voters," Barber said.

While a decision in the case could take months, Barber said he is hopeful judgment will come through sooner than that. In the meantime, he plans to move forward with Moral Monday rallies and other civil disobedience actions, which began with a few dozen protesters in 2013, but have over time drawn tens of thousands to the streets and led to the arrest of more than 1,000 activists.

Barber, who has himself been arrested five times for trespassing and other actions related to his civil rights activities, said that the main goal of the movement is to continue to engage people from all walks of life: "White, black, young old, democratic, republican, gay, and straight…getting people engaged once again, because they feel like they're doing something that's historically transformative."

"The only time we've moved this country forward is when we've had reconstruction movements rooted in fusion politics," he said. "Otherwise we go from bill to bill, passing a tweak here and a tweak there, but there comes a time in a country's history where you need more than a tweak. You need a transformation. A major transformation. And I believe that we're in that moment, right now."

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This story is the second of two parts of VICE News' coverage on voting rights and racial justice in the American South

Watch: Rev. William Barber speaking at Riverside Church in Manhattan in 2014: 

NC Forward Together Moral Movement Channel

Watch a video about the new civil rights movement that the Reverend Barber calls the "Third Reconstruction": 

Video courtesy of Story of America

— Erika Mishoe (@WeAreNotAsleep)July 13, 2015

Watch the VICE News Video, "Talking Heads: A Look Back at the Violence in Ferguson."