Reverend Doctor William Barber II isn’t concerned with being successful — instead, he grapples with a different question.
“The question in life I grapple with the most isn’t how I can be successful,” Barber said. “The question I grapple with the most is how I can be significant. I could quit right now if I just wanted to be successful. But the question is how to be significant.”
Dr. Barber was born August 30, 1963 to a father who was a trained theologian and had a masters degree in social work and a mother who was a trained pianist with a business degree and was working for the government.
“The joke in my family is that my mother went into labor on the 28th and stopped, because I wanted to see what was going to happen after the march on Washington - so I was born August 30th,” Barber said.
When Barber was young his parents made a decision that he says he thinks impacted his life.
“My father was from eastern North Carolina from Martin County,” Barber said. “And those that know history will know that in 1964, ten years after Brown (v. Board of Education), schools in the south were still not desegregated even though the Supreme Court had ruled (for schools to desegregate).
“My parents made the decision to come back home. E.V. Wilkins put a call out to my father and said ‘Barber, we need you to come back. You have participated in integration in Indiana and we need some trained people (to come here).’ My father and mother prayed about it and made a decision that rather than escape the continuing Jim Crow of the south, they would bring me back home, their only child at the time, even though it meant my father would have to teach at a segregated school, and that my mother would be the secretary at a segregated school, and their only son would be entering kindergarten or first grade at a segregated school.”
Barber’s father and mother were among the first to help integrate Plymouth High School, in Washington County, NC. Dr. Barber was educated in the public schools of Washington County and became the student government president of his high school for the entire year in 1980, even though there were elections for two separate student body presidents - one black, which would serve for one semester, and one white, which would serve for the next semester.
Originally, Barber went to school to become a lawyer and didn’t always want to become a minister. He said that watching his father work as a minister and his father being underappreciated caused him to struggle with his decision to become a minister.
“I’m a country boy,” Barber said. “I’d much rather be fishing or just hanging out with some people or doing normal pastoral work than being so engaged, though I think this is pretty normal too.”
Barber feels the answer to his question of significance is through is pastoral work and political involvement. Often he, and others, refer to their overarching work as ‘the movement.’
“The movement is a set of justice related activities for the purpose of substantial change,” said Reverend Nelson Johnson, one of Barber’s close friends since the early nineties. “It’s made up of two parts, I think, which is the network of people involved in the movement and the energy surrounding the movement created by the people in it.
“I always think of the movement as a rising stream. It swells and swells and pulls things into it off of the bank that had no intention of becoming part of that stream.”
Both Reverend Johnson and his wife, Joyce, said Reverend Barber’s “commitment and courage to engage stubborn injustices” has always impressed them. Barber, they added, also has an unusual capacity to communicate effectively while remaining true to who he is.
“Something about Reverend Barber is his sincerity,” said Dr. Jarvis Hall, director of the institute for civic engagement and social change at North Carolina Central University. “It isn’t like he’ll say something to you and then go say something else behind your back. He is committed to himself in some sense, but he really is committed to the cause.”
Dr. Barber is aware that one of his current efforts, Moral Monday, hasn’t stopped the North Carolina legislature from passing things that he and the other protesters at Moral Monday oppose. But, he says, the victory lies elsewhere.
“When you see a movement in the south that’s broad, diverse and deep, coming together out of common interest - that’s a victory,” Barber said. “Because there has been so much designed in the south to keep us apart. We may not have stopped the legislature from their votes, but we’ll deal with that in the courts. But what has happened is that there is a fire burning in North Carolina that has gained the recognition of the nation and the world.”
Dr. Barber is part white, part black and part tuscorora indian, so when people text him with nasty comments such as “this is the white nation,” or leave ugly remarks on news stories he is featured in, he says it doesn’t trouble him.
“The talk doesn’t bother me,” Barber said. “When I look in the (comment) sections under the stories and see the ugliness of the comments, you know, I’m not troubled but I...I pray for those folk, who just say some of the nastiest things. I pray for those whose humanity is so distorted.”
Barber shared a personal anecdote about a man who approached him when he was speaking about healthcare.
“I never will forget one time when we were talking about healthcare, a man came up to me and he was crippled almost,” Barber said. “And he goes ‘You people just want all this free stuff.’ And I said ‘What do you mean, you people?’ And he goes, ‘You black people.’ And I said, ‘No sir, the majority of the people who are going to benefit are white.’ And I looked (at the man) and said, ‘Wait a minute, aren’t you kind of crippled?’ And the man goes, ‘Yeah, but that’s different.’ And then he walked away from me.”
Barber said doing what he does gets tiring, and he turns to God and his family and his church family to keep him going.
“There are some things I don’t do,” Barber said. “I don’t miss Sunday morning and I don’t miss Wednesday night.”
He said when he goes home, he’s able to table the issues he fights and become the one that’s joking around.
“When I go home I’m the one that does the joking, and I’m the one that sprays the water and I’m the one that when my wife is cooking something I’ll sneak it out of the pan and take it in the other room,” Barber said. “So it’s things like that. Just knowing I’m not alone.”
And sometimes, when Barber just needs agreement, he’ll talk to his german shepard.
“When I really want to talk and get nothing but agreement, I go talk to my big old german shepard because he’s a great listener,” Barber said. “He doesn’t ever say anything and I’m just his best friend. All I’ve got to have is two biscuits and he doesn’t care what my position is on anything - we’re cool.”