Rev. Barber: 'The greatest myth of our times is that extremist politics only hurt a few people.'
Sitting among the wooden pews in a packed Bethel Lutheran Church on Thursday evening to hear an address by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, one longtime participant in the Solidarity Sing Along, couldn't help but joke about her surroundings.
"This is the first time we've been in a church!" said Rose J. of the group, which has been protesting Gov. Scott Walker's policies daily in noontime sing-alongs at the state Capitol for three years.
She wasn't the only progressive to joke about religion that night. When introducing Barber, South Central Federation of Labor president Kevin Gundlach recalled skipping church as a child, even though his grandfather was a pastor.
But faith in a "higher ground" was at the core of Barber's message to his audience of labor and civil rights advocates and community members. Barber preached that the solution to their respective problems lies in morally grounded cooperation and mutual concern.
"We all stand together to lift up and defend the most sacred moral principles of our faith, and our Constitution, and those are, 'I am my brother's keeper,'" Barber said.
Barber urged the audience to build a "movement of moral dissent." Barber, who is also the president of the North Carolina NAACP, co-founded the Moral Mondays social justice movement in North Carolina in 2013 to protest the increasingly conservative shift in state politics.
The movement has drawn thousands of demonstrators in protests against numerous issues, from last summer's Supreme Court of the United States decision in Shelby County v. Holder over the Voting Rights Act to the expansion of school vouchers in North Carolina.
UW-Madison history professor Will Jones, who spoke before Barber, spoke of parallels between Wisconsin and North Carolina's histories of dueling progressive and conservative politics. He said he hoped that Wisconsin could learn from the movement Barber has helped shepherd in North Carolina.
"At times, I think [a unified social justice movement] has been missing here," Jones said.
Another speaker, Gwen Jones, who is interim chair of a group looking to start a new Dane County chapter of the NAACP, spoke of local efforts to address the gaps between the experiences of black and white residents in Wisconsin.
The "Race to Equity" report, which was released last October by the Wisconsin Council for Children and Families underscored the deep racial disparities in Dane County. For example, more than half of the county's black resident live below the poverty live, compared to less then 10% of its white population.
Barber urged listeners to take up causes beyond their own, from supporting LGBTQ rights to fighting for racial equality, in order to build the broadest possible coalition.
"If you believe in labor rights, you've got to believe in voting rights," he said, ticking off a list of progressive causes.
"The greatest myth of our times is that extremist politics only hurt a few people," Barber said.
In between their cheers and applause, Barber instructed his audience to look to history for guidance, particularly the Reconstruction period that immediately followed the Civil War, when white Republicans, populists and former slaves formed a political coalition in Southern states that allowed blacks to enter political office and integrate into Southern society.
State and local-level grassroots coalition building, Barber said, would help bring about what he has referred to as the "Third Reconstruction."
"Movements start from Selma up ... from Madison up, not Washington and New York down," he said.