The inspiring address by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II at our Spring Conference on May 13 couldn’t have come at a better time. Barber, who received the UFT’s John Dewey Award, has led the North Carolina NAACP since 2005 and rallied thousands in his Moral Mondays marches that addressed everything from raising the minimum wage to LGBTQ rights. Just days before the conference, Barber announced that he will lead the national Poor People’s Campaign, a new incarnation of the movement that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. launched nearly 50 years ago.
In accepting the Dewey award, Barber lifted us with his words and his vision of a better future.
He reminded UFT members of the long arc of history and the fundamental moral values that have propelled the fight for social justice in decades past and propel it today.
“The only way we, as a nation, cannot educate every child is to argue that some don’t matter like others matter and some children are inherently inferior because of their race, their zip code or their class,” he said. “We must fight for the humanity of all children.”
As he has repeatedly done over the last 10 years, Barber encouraged the building of bridges. He encouraged UFT members to link the fight for well-funded public education with the fights for a living wage, health care, worker rights and voting rights.
He spoke of what he and the civil rights movement he has led in North Carolina have accomplished in four short years by bringing people together in the fight for what’s right.
Barber led the challenge to the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature and its Republican governor, Pat McCrory. He fought the state’s voter ID law, a naked attempt to suppress the vote in largely African-American and Democratic-leaning precincts. And he cried foul when McCrory passed the anti-transgender “bathroom bill.”
A federal appeals court in 2016 struck down the voter ID law as an unconstitutional effort to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision,” and on May 15 of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review that decision. McCrory was voted out of office in November in the same election that swept Donald Trump to victory, and in April, North Carolina lawmakers repealed the bathroom bill.
North Carolina is just one example of the havoc that Republican governors and legislatures are creating for working people across the nation. Here in New York, we have the benefit of a mayor and a governor who are allied with us, but we must remain vigilant. New York cannot be an island.
I first heard Barber speak in 2012, when he came to the UFT as the featured speaker at our faith-based breakfast. What he said then was prescient: He warned that the nation was becoming “regressive and mean-spirited” and stressed the moral imperative of investing fully in “public schools for a functioning democracy and the values of a free society.”
And last year, Barber told the Democratic National Convention, “When we fight for $15 and a union and universal health care and public education and immigrant rights and LGBTQ rights, we are reviving the heart of our democracy.”
We are proud to stand with Barber in this important fight. “If there are people cynical enough to take us backward, we need to be smart enough to come together to bring us forward,” he said at the Spring Education Conference.
We cannot move forward without strong public schools. To quote the reverend one final time: “We can’t take a recess until Betsy DeVos is no longer able to destroy public education.”