Last Wednesday, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II, a Protestant minister and civil rights advocate from North Carolina, offered a speech at Occidental College in Thorne Hall titled, “Revival, Resilience, Redemption After Rejection: Analyzing the 2016 Election and How to Move Forward.” People from several departments across campus, including staff from the President’s Office, the Chief Diversity Officer, Politics faculty members and Urban and Environmental Policy Institute staff, assisted in arranging the event.
The day of, Thorne Hall swarmed with over 800 attendees, members of the college and the public alike, who had registered online for free before the event. Barber stood delivering his lecture on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s keynote address on the very same stage.
The event was highly anticipated — Barber stirred national audiences with his call for a moral revolution at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) last July. Barber has gained acclaim as a progressive political leader, minister and community organizer, and is currently the pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Barber serves on the National NAACP Board of Directors and has worked as president of the North Carolina NAACP.
Barber also helped organize the Forward Together Moral Movement with the North Carolina NAACP, a campaign of weekly, “Moral Mondays” protests at the North Carolina General Assembly where crowds of tens of thousands consistently mobilized. Barber and fellow demonstrators continually meet and occupy the legislature building to protest actions by the North Carolina legislature, which has previously passed voter suppression laws and cut unemployment benefits.
In his address, Barber frequently urged for the revival of the heart of democracy. He emphasized themes of social justice within the Bible and reproached the religious platform of many right-wing evangelists and politicians for espousing bigotry.
The high-profile speaker left many students with varying expectations for the lecture.
“Initially, I was very open to the talk. I was intrigued by Reverend Dr. Barber’s involvement with the NAACP,” Delarys Ramos (sophomore) said. We often hear [people] speak of the National Association in terms of history (King, Marshall, Parks etc.) and to hear someone speak who is currently involved with it was exciting.”
Ricardo Parada (junior) anticipated that many people who were scared and frustrated by ongoing political turbulence would attend the sermon looking for hope. He also regarded Barber’s selection as the speaker as Occidental’s attempt to appeal to a wide range of listeners.
“Part of what Occidental is trying to do is bring different communities together, and Reverend Barber’s messaging is something almost anyone can rally behind. He was a safe choice,” Parada said.
While Parada agreed with most of Barber’s points, he believed Barber approached social justice as an aim achievable within the current political milieu, neglecting the more radical end goal of uprooting the very social order which upholds inequity and racism.
Barber began his speech by denouncing those who cherry-pick favorable aspects of faith and pervert Scripture into words of hatred.
“I am a preacher, a theologically conservative, liberal, evangelical biblicist,” Barber said.
Barber argued that this nation must genuinely commit to the fundamental values explicated in our founding texts, stressing the Constitution’s call to establish justice in the United States. Students interpreted Barber’s call to embody constitutional morals in different ways.
“The word morality has been perverted by bigots forever, and I think what Barber was trying to do was present us a morality that was all-inclusive to ‘gay hands, straight hands and black hands,’” Ramos said.
Halla Keir (sophomore) regarded Barber’s references to religion as inclusive and enjoyed the lively atmosphere it created. However, she thought the content of the speech played into a very common liberal reformist narrative.
“Rev. Barber kept telling us how we should be just or moral because that’s what scripture says, or because that’s what the Constitution says, or because that’s what it means to be American. I don’t really get why we need these justifications for being good people,” Keir said. “Surely we should all just care about each other’s freedom and liberation.”
Some students found the focus on constitutional morals problematic, arguing that nationalist values like those articulated in the Constitution are not universally applicable due to their foundations in white supremacy.
“Our constitution and our country as a whole is rooted in the oppression of non-white people, black people and in slavery. And to say that we will go back to the morals of the Constitution does not get to the root of the problem and is a band-aid solution,” Zoe Foster-La Du (sophomore) said.
Barber also spoke of his political mission as an advocate for the revival of the Voting Rights Act. He spoke out against the nullification of Congress and made separate pleas for living wages, universal healthcare, immigrant rights and LGBTQ rights.
Throughout his speech, Thorne Hall reverberated with cheers and applause. Many were visibly moved by Barber’s calls for a nation-wide moral revolution, raising their arms and exclaiming assent.
Students from a variety of classes across academic departments were required to attend the speech. In the past, professors have also made certain keynotes addresses and on-campus events mandatory to their respective curricula in hopes of increasing participation.
“While I wasn’t necessarily fully required to go to the speech, my professor’s suggestion provided an interesting balance of encouraging me to go and it played to my interests,” Peter Kukla (junior) said.
The event proved so popular that Choi Auditorium and the Johnson atrium hosted live-streams of the talk for those unable to gain admission into the fully-packed Thorne Hall.
“Despite not being in the charismatic presence of Reverend Dr. William Barber, the energy was still alive in Choi,” Aidan Dougherty (senior) said.
The Thursday following the event, Professors of American Studies Erica Ball and Courtney Baker hosted an informal discussion of Barber’s remarks entitled Black Studies Brown Bag, which was open to students, faculty and staff.
Over lunch, a small group considered topics ranging from the role of faith in political organizing, the concept of Afro-pessimism and the co-optation of resistance movements by those in power.
Ramos, who attended the discussion, regarded the Reverend’s speech as spiritually revitalizing but lacking a specific blueprint for radical social change. She explained that the brown-bag group shared these sentiments.
“Our main concern at the discussion: how do we engage with our critical thinking and leave room for spaces of ecstasy, joy and hope, without seeming naive?” Ramos said.