How the Third Reconstruction Will Push the US Toward a More Perfect Union
July 07, 2021
By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Since the summer of 2013, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II has been championing the Third Reconstruction to dismantle racist policies and structures in a sweeping effort at the level of federal government. And just three years ago, he stepped down as North Carolina state chapter president of the NAACP to join the new Poor People’s Campaign to advocate economic justice for all across the racial spectrum. Now his calls to reimagine US society for the betterment of us all has gained traction over the last year. This passage from The Third Reconstruction, which he wrote with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, not only lays out the blueprint for movement building but also lays out the issues the moral movement advocates for. This is where it all began.
As I’ve traveled to share North Carolina’s story, I’ve seen how a reconstruction framework can help America see our struggles in a new light. Everywhere we’ve gone—from deep in the heart of Dixie to Wisconsin, where I saw water frozen in waves for the first time—I heard a longing for a moral movement that plows deep into our souls and recognizes that the attacks we face today are not a sign of our weakness, but rather the manifestation of a worrisome fear among the governing elites that their days are numbered and the hour is late.
Sharing the story of North Carolina’s Forward Together Moral Movement, we’ve had the opportunity to drink from tributaries that run toward the great stream of justice throughout America—whether in the Hands Up, Don’t Shoot, I Can’t Breathe, and Black Lives Matter movements; the fast-food workers’ Raise Up and minimum wage movements; the voting rights and People Over Money movements; the women’s rights and End Rape Culture movements; the LGBTQ equality movements; the global movement to address climate change; or the immigrant rights, Not One More movements. Within the framework of a Third Reconstruction, we see how all of our movements are flowing together, recognizing that our intersectionality creates the opportunity to fundamentally redirect America.
Within two years of our first Moral Monday in Raleigh, we saw Moral Mondays movement coalitions come together in fourteen states, not only in the South but also in the Midwest, New York, and Maine. Even as our North Carolina coalition partners organized over two hundred events, rallies, and protests across the state, the Moral Mondays movement was taken up and extended in other states, growing beyond our ability to keep count. Ours is a movement raising up leaders, not an organization recruiting followers.
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 America toward our truest hope of a “more perfect union” where peace is established through justice, not fear. This is not blind faith. We have seen it in North Carolina. We have seen it throughout America’s history. And we are witnessing it even now in state-based, state-government-focused moral fusion coalitions that are gathering to stand against immoral deconstruction. Ours is the living hope of America’s black-led freedom struggle, summed up so well in Langston Hughes’s memorable claim that although America had never been America to him, even still he could swear, “America will be!”
Despite the dark money, old fears, and vicious attacks of extremists, we know America will be because our deepest moral values are rooted in something greater than people’s ability to conspire. All the money in the world can’t change that bedrock truth. This is the confidence that has sustained every moral movement in the history of the world.
In 1857, when the Supreme Court ruled in its Dred Scott decision that a black man had no standing in America’s courts, Frederick Douglass said:
In one point of view, we, the abolitionists and colored people, should meet this decision, unlooked for and monstrous as it appears, in a cheerful spirit. This very attempt to blot out forever the hopes of an enslaved people may be one necessary link in the chain of events preparatory to the downfall and complete overthrow of the whole slave system.
The whole history of the anti-slavery movement is studded with proof that all measures devised and executed with a view to ally and diminish the anti-slavery agitation, have only served to increase, intensify, and embolden that agitation.
He was right, of course. But he was speaking a long eight years before the end of the Civil War. Only as we reconstruct this moral movement mentality can we begin to shift the conscience of the nation. But we know as surely as Douglass did in 1857 that we will. We’ve not won yet, but we are gaining ground. When we started Moral Mondays in North Carolina, most of the issues we supported didn’t have majority support in the polls. But after we shifted the public consciousness by engaging in moral critique, 55 percent of North Carolinians oppose refusing federal aid for the long-term jobless and the unemployed. Fifty-five percent of North Carolinians support raising the minimum wage. Fifty-eight percent of North Carolinians say we should accept federal funds to expand Medicaid. Sixty-one percent of North Carolinians oppose using public funds for vouchers to support private schools. Fifty-four percent of North Carolinians now would rather raise taxes and give teachers a pay raise than cut taxes. Sixty-six percent of North Carolinians now don’t agree with the North Carolina legislators’ strict limits on women’s reproductive rights. Only 33 percent agree with cutting funding for prekindergarten education and child care. Fewer than 25 percent agree with repealing the Racial Justice Act. Seventy-three percent favor outlawing discrimination against gays in hiring and ﬁ ring, and 68 percent of voters oppose cutting early voting and favor an alternative to voter ID.
After the 2014 elections, when the extremists held on to power and succeeded in sending their leader, Thom Tillis, to the US Senate, some suggested we had failed by not running Forward Together Moral Movement candidates who would champion our agenda. But a reconstruction framework helps us to see that we will not win by starting a third party. We will win by changing the conversation for every candidate and party. To be sure, we’re not there yet. But if we reconstruct a movement mentality that begins to create a public consensus about what is acceptable, then we will see a reconstruction of the legal and statutory protections that establish justice and ensure the common good.
Indeed, this is already beginning to happen. At home in North Carolina, we’ve seen local people’s assemblies emerge in “conservative” districts, changing the conversation in places that are bright red on any political strategist’s map. When we educate people about how our state’s refusal to expand Medicaid is closing rural hospitals and killing white people just the same as black people, they don’t follow the party line. They see how their own health is tied to the well-being of others.
As we’ve walked with service workers, framing their life-and-death struggle as a moral issue, we see living-wage campaigns becoming a ballot issue. When public opinion gets ahead of the party line, we need to put the question directly to the people.
Likewise with education. We’ve seen that we have to expose the connections between “community schools” or voucher programs and resegregation. Fully funded public education is a bedrock of multicultural democracy. In North Carolina, our constitution has provided legal grounds for this argument. But it is an essential moral issue in every state.
As our coalitions move from a new moral consensus toward legal and statutory changes, we know we have to put faces on the issues that our partners care about. We cannot be abstract. Directly affected people must lead the way and we must support and stand with them. While we continue to petition for Medicaid expansion in North Carolina and in a score of other states, we are convening People’s Grand Juries to hear testimonies of citizens who are suffering because their elected officials are failing to uphold their oaths of office.
Even as we focus on real people’s lives and stories, we must work to help people see how their issues are connected. Constitutional marriage amendments and so-called “religious freedom bills” must be exposed as a cynical political ploy to exploit religious convictions to divide gay folks from black folks. When any of us suffer, all of us suffer. We must stand together.
The same is true in our criminal justice system. The Third Reconstruction must abolish the death penalty in America on grounds of its unjust application. But this cannot be narrowly defined as an abolitionist struggle in which convicted killers are pitted against victim’s family members. We must end the death penalty instead as a first step toward dismantling America’s system of mass incarceration, which has rightly been called a “new Jim Crow.” We cannot do this without reexamining three-strikes-you’re-out laws and a broken plea-bargaining system in which prosecutors elected by a white-majority electorate in counties have unchecked power in over-policed inner-city neighborhoods.
Because political power is a democracy’s chief safeguard against injustice, we must continue to engage the voting rights issue after the US Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which removed protections against voter suppression in Southern states that had been in place for half a century. This fight is, in many ways, bigger than Selma and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That expansion of voting rights fifty years ago was a concession to the civil rights movement. We didn’t get all we were asking for. Now, fifty years later, we’re fighting to hold on to the compromise. What we really need is a constitutional amendment to guarantee the same voting rights in every state. This must be a cornerstone of the Third Reconstruction.
About the Authors
The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II is the president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach, cochair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. A visiting professor of public theology and activism, Rev. Dr. Barber is also the author of The Third Reconstruction.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is cofounder of the Rutba House for the formerly homeless and director of the School for Conversion. His books include Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (with Shane Claiborne) and The New Monasticism.