The Third Reconstruction (William J. Barber) -- A Review

THE THIRD RECONSTRUCTION: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement. By William J. Barber II with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016. Xvi + 151 pages.

                I remember the first time I heard the Reverend William Barber II speak. It was the night following the delivery of the not guilty verdict of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case. I was in Orlando, not far from where the court had met, for the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The NAACP was holding their national convention in the same venue. I remember the night the verdict was delivered quite well. I overheard a group of young adults who had been at the convention talk about the verdict and the emergency meeting that was about to be held. We at the General Assembly were stunned ourselves. So, the next evening, as we gathered for worship, and before the speaker for the night came on stage, Rev. Barber spoke to us as a representative of the NAACP. His message that evening was powerful. While he represented the NAACP that night, he also spoke as a Disciples of Christ pastor. In these dual roles he called on us as Disciples to embrace the cause of racial justice. Since that night I've had several opportunities to hear him speak and each time I have been impressed by the powerful message he brings to those who gather to listen. He is one of America’s leading prophetic voices, but his ministry is local to North Carolina, where he serves as the president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and as pastor of a local Disciples congregation.

                The message Barber has been delivering of late concerns what he calls the Third Reconstruction. In this book, he introduces us to his vision of reconstruction. This book, under review, is a follow up to his previous book, which I have had the privilege of reading and reviewing—Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation (Chalice Press).

                In this book, written Barber with the assistance of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, we’re introduced to the New Justice Movement. The book is part memoir, part sermon, part history, and part prophetic call to action. As I noted Barber is the president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and a Disciples pastor. He is also the founder of the Moral Monday Movement, which seeks to build a coalition, a fusion politics, that will unite people across racial, ethnic, political, and religious lines to pursue liberty and justice for all, especially those caught on the margins. Indeed, his is a coalition that unites people who aren’t always on the same page politically, but who share common concerns. They are united by this vision of a Third Reconstruction, which “holds the promise of healing our nation’s wounds and birthing a better future for all” (p. xiii).   

                The book is quite personal. Barber tells his own story, how he came to North Carolina, entered the ministry, and got connected to the NAACP. He tells us how he overcame a deliberating disease that almost left him paralyzed. He still bears signs of those wounds, but it has not kept him from pursuing his vision, even if that means being arrested. And, arrested he has been on many occasions, for the powers that be have not welcomed him nor his movement in North Carolina. The movement has grown in strength, but the powers that be remained entrenched. They have done everything they can to retain power through gerrymandering and attempts to diminish access to voting (all courtesy of the Supreme Court decision to strip the Voting Rights Act of its teeth). Despite the obstacles, he discovered an important insight: “History showed me that what the Bible says is true: when we all get together, something powerful can happen” (p. 35). This realization has led him to embrace a fusion coalition. Black and white, gay and straight, Latino and Asian, Republican and Democrat, business and labor. Everyone willing to join together in common cause was welcome. As president of the NAACP, he wanted the organization to move from “banquets to battle.” What he came to understand is that success requires building a large coalition that united diverse communities willing to pursue justice for all. Of course, this will engender resistance. Those who want to keep the status quo will seek to divide and conquer. They will try to convince whites that their interests are different than those who black or Latino. Every coalition has faced such attacks. Certainly this was true during the Civil Rights Movement and it’s true today.

                Barber describes his vision for this new justice movement in terms of a Third Reconstruction. The first Reconstruction was that effort to build a new society in the South that would enable former slaves to enter fully into society. During the period following the war a fusion politics emerged that enabled numerous black candidates to get elected to political office, including the US Senate and governorships. This first Reconstruction continued on until late in the nineteenth century, but the resistance began to emerge in the mid-1870s as Jim Crow emerged, segregating black and white, and putting an end to full participation of blacks in the South. The Second Reconstruction was the Civil Rights Movement that emerged in the 1950s and led to monumental changes in American social policy, including laws that banned overt segregation and gave voting rights to blacks. Jim Crow had met its match. Of course, success leads to resistance. This time the reaction came in the form of the Southern Strategy that transformed the political life of the South by finding new ways to disestablish African Americans. This time it was more covert than before, but it was just as effective in limiting the advancement in society of people of color. Once again efforts were made to divide and conquer.  During this period the South and even the north communities were resegregated. This was a period that saw the growth of private schools, reduced funding for public schools, diminished health care, and so-called tough on crime legislation that impacted African Americans more so than other community. This has led to what is known as the "New Jim Crow," which is marked by mass incarceration, often on disproportionate sentences for drug offenses. 

                The Third Reconstruction is now underway. Expressions of it include the election Barack Obama, which in turn led to new forms of resistance. Barber points to The Moral Monday and Forward Together Movements as expressions of the Third Reconstruction. Once again these movements for change are rooted in fusion politics. This movement is for Barber deeply rooted in his faith, but the partnerships cross faith lines. Barber isn’t under illusion that the way forward will be easy. Indeed, we’re seeing many signs at this very moment of the kind of resistance that seeks to divide and conquer the use of fear—fear of people of color, of immigrants, of other religions, of people whose sexual orientation or gender identity is different from the majority. Political extremists on the right have found an effective way of obtaining power by playing fears of the other. Indeed, building walls rather than bridges is the politics of the day. The only way forward, then is to build fusion coalitions that will resist the fear-based politics of the day. These coalitions need to be indigenous. Barber himself has no interest in helicoptering in as the "national voice." He will go and encourage local coalitions, but he won’t lead them. While class is certainly part of the equation, Barber reminds us that we cannot afford to lose sight of the role that race plays in the conversation. Barber writes:
If we refuse to be divided by fear and continue pushing forward together, I have no doubt that these nascent movements will swell into a Third Reconstruction to push American toward our truest hope of a “more perfect union” where peace is established through justice, not fear (p. 122). 

Barber closes his portion of the book (there is an afterword by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who did a wonderful job helping Barber tell his own story and his vision of a Third Reconstruction) by offering an appendix for organizers. In this appendix Barber lays out fourteen steps for moving forward together. Among the fourteen steps is a call to “engage in indigenously led grassroots organizing across the state;” “demonstrate a commitment to civil disobedience that follows the steps of nonviolent action and is designed to change public conversation and consciousness;” and “intentionally diversify the movement with the goal of winning unlikely allies” (pp. 127-130).

                This book offered up by William Barber, a civil rights and justice activist and pastor, is a must read. It is prophetic book! It calls on us to get up and get engaged. I don’t know if I’m ready to get arrested, but movements that lead engage the powers often lead to such fates. The book is inspiring—as is true of a personal encounter. But as inspiring as he may be, he makes it clear that he’s not interested in being a national leader. He simply wants to inspire us all to join together in a fusion movement to pursue justice and the common good. That is a Third Reconstruction Movement.  So take and read so that we might move into a new day, where fear no longer divides! It will be a challenging read, especially if you are comfortable with the status quo. But it will also be an inspiring read! As I noted Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove has done a masterful job in turning out a very readable text. This makes for a book that will be good for your soul!


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