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MacArthur 'Genius' Grant Winner: Rev. William J. Barber II


Finally, today, our visit with another of this year's MacArthur Foundation Fellowship winners - the so-called genius grants. The 2018 class includes many artists and scientists and performers and the Reverend William Barber II. Reverend Barber might be best known for his Moral Monday protest outside of the statehouse in North Carolina. He was among the first to draw attention to strategies that he said were aimed at suppressing the participation of poor and minority voters. He's led nonviolent protests across the country to fight poverty and racism. And the Reverend William Barber II is with us now on the line from North Carolina.

Thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations to you.

WILLIAM BARBER II: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: So how did you react when you first heard this news that you had been awarded this prize?

BARBER: Well, you know, you don't know. It's anonymous. You don't even know they're following you, don't know who sent your name in. They called me. I told them to stop playing. I thought it was a prank. Then they said, no, this is for real. Then the next thing for me was tears. I thought about all the things that my parents have done and sacrificed and all of the years of just working and trying to serve. It was kind of overwhelming.

And, you know, especially when - in the work I do, a lot of times, people are very, very nasty in their criticisms. They say you're doing it for money. You're doing it for attention. They question your motives when the reality is, you know, you just want to love people and see justice (unintelligible). You want to see people have voting rights and people have health care and people treated right regardless of their race, their color, their creed, their sexuality. So a gift like this says somebody else sees what you're trying to do, and they want to be a part of you continuing to do that work.

So when they told me that the announcement had come out, I was actually in custody from standing with low-wage workers and nurses and people working at McDonald's. And that's what I was doing.

MARTIN: We usually think of this grant that goes to people in the science and art worlds to stimulate creativity. So talk to me about the role that creativity plays in activism.

BARBER: Well, you know, in every age, we know what works if people are going to make a difference. We know that non-violent civil disobedience works. We know that protest works. We know that voting works. But, in every age, there's different - you have to face it a different way. In the 1800s, for instance, they were just trying to get the right to vote. Now and in the 1960s, today, we're trying to hold on to what we won before and then press on to what we need to yet see done.

You know, we are trying to hold on to basic voting rights, but we also want to get to where everybody 18 is automatically registered, and where voting is a holiday, and where same-day registration and early voting is something that happens in every state. You know, years ago, people were fighting just to talk about health care. Now, today, we're trying to hold onto the affirmative - the Affordable Care Act and expand it to universal healthcare. So it takes - it requires a certain understanding of the times.

MARTIN: But how do you - but - I mean, I'm thinking about things like, how do you get people to see these issues in a fresh way, which is kind of the essence of creativity? I mean, some of your techniques like preaching, speaking, writing, demonstrating - those are classics. But you've also done things that are kind of - like, you know, give me an example of kind of like a fresh way to get people to look at something that they think that they already understand.

BARBER: Well, you know, you remix. I mean, James Brown was classic soul, but the rap was remix. So you remix it.

So what you do is - for instance, back in the day, they had freedom schools that teach them. And what we did with Moral Monday is - and what we do around the country - we do something called the MPOLIS - the Moral Political Organizing Leadership Institute and Summit. And what we do is we bring people together of all different races, creeds, colors and classes, and we say, OK. Let's look at voter suppression - for instance, the real numbers, the empirical data, 26 states. We said, now let's - those same states are high-poverty states. Those same states pass laws against immigrant people and gay people. Those same states have denied Medicaid expansion. Those same states deny union rights.

So if the same states that pass racialized voter suppression and the people that get elected because of racialized voter suppression then use their election to hurt mostly white people and mostly poor people, and we show people that empirically, then they began to say, oh, wait a minute. We're fighting the same people. The same people that are attacking immigrants are the ones attacking health care. The same people that are attacking health care are the ones that are attacking voting rights.

And so if they are cynical enough to be together, we have to be smart enough to come together. That is the way in which you remix, if you will, what was done in the past, and you expand it in the present.

MARTIN: So before we wrap up here, as you mentioned at the outset, that this is not a lifetime achievement award. This is an investment in you to launch whatever it is you want to do next. As you know, one of the MacArthur genius grant winners previously was Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote "Hamilton." So, you know, no pressure. What do you want...

BARBER: (Laughter).

MARTIN: What are you going to do with the grant? Have you thought about it?

BARBER: Well, I know what I'm going to do with life. And, however the grant continues, I don't see any other reason for me to be alive than to work on these issues of racism and poverty and ecological devastation or economy and trying to build what I call moral analysis, moral articulation and moral action. I'm deep-diving into the poor people's campaigning through Repairers of the Breach that our organization and I lead. I'm in my church where I'm pastor - Greenleaf Christian Church.

And I don't know, Michel, if what we do will sow the seed of future transformation or if we will see the victories in the current time in which we live. But what I do know is, as for me and my house, as the scriptures say, we're going to continue to serve this cause because we believe that love and justice and mercy - those things are important, and there's nothing more important than serving.

MARTIN: That's the Reverend William J. Barber II. He's the pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C. He's the founder and president of Repairers of the Breach. As you just heard, he's the author of many books, and he is now a 2018 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship - a so-called genius grant. Reverend

Barber, thank you so much for talking to us.

BARBER: Love you much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.