COLUMBIA, SC — In a speech of fire and thunder Sunday evening, one of today’s best-known civil rights activists denounced what he said was narrow-minded political and religious thinking that has “put extremism on steroids.”
“We must not give up the so-called high moral ground to the right-wing extremists,” said the Rev. William Barber II, 50, president of the N.C. NAACP, to about 300 at Zion Baptist Church in downtown Columbia.
Issues such as voting, health care, environment and education “are moral issues, faith issues,” Barber said in a pre-Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech to Columbia and S.C. NAACP members and guests.
“Any profession of faith that doesn’t promote justice and standing against wrong is a form of heresy,” said Barber, adding that pastors who obsess about topics like prayer, homosexuality and abortion while neglecting justice, poverty, fair play and equality issues “are just running their mouths.”
In the past year, Barber has become one of the most publicized activists in the country as he has led growing “Moral Monday” demonstrations that have attracted thousands to protest against the Legislature in Raleigh. Hundreds, including Barber, have been arrested for acts of civil disobedience.
And in less than an hour Sunday night, with cadences that rose and fell, sometimes ascending to a shout, he gave a clearly captivated Columbia crowd a taste of the rhetoric that has caused North Carolina conservatives to demonize him as a “moron” and rabble-rouser, but others to regard him as an inspiring hero.
Some 300 verses in the Bible talk about justice and poverty issues and only three about sexuality, and “none of them give you a license to hate somebody,” Barber said to applause.
“When you take everyday subjects and give them the biblical and historical context he did, it energizes you to do and say what must be done,” said Tameika Isaac Devine, the only member of the seven-member Columbia City Council to attend Sunday’s event.
Besides quoting the Bible and Martin Luther King Jr., Barber managed to cite dozens of historic documents, people and events, from his role model Rosa Parks to President Obama to the Constitution to Alabama racist Bull Connor.
Action is what is needed — not sermons from “pastoral scaredy-cats who stay in the safety of the sanctuary” and church members “just sitting (in) a pew and never get their hindquarters out,” he said to cheers.
“Unless we stand for justice, we cannot claim allegiance to Jesus, and we cannot pay homage to Dr. King unless we’re in the fight for treating people right,” he said. “We don’t need to talk about Democrat versus Republican. . . . We need to talk about what’s right versus what’s wrong.”
Barber had special criticism for blacks who he said aren’t following the MLK spirit. That includes black youths who kill each other and others “who wear their pants down to their knees.”
He also singled out U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., the conservative black Republican appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley.
“A ventriloquist can always find a good dummy,” Barber said. He said “the extreme right wing down here (in South Carolina) finds a black guy to be senator and claims he’s the first black senator since Reconstruction and then he goes to Washington, D.C., and articulates the agenda of the Tea Party.”
Columbia resident Ruby James, 73, said she enjoyed Barber. “It was very, very encouraging. He hit all the important points to all of us. It was wonderful.”
Longtime Columbia attorney Steve Hamm, who was in the audience with his wife, Richland 2 superintendent Debbie Hamm, said Barber was a powerful speaker.
“I admire his presentation in both the content and how he presented the message – I think he was simply trying to make the point that at some point, you have to do more than talk about things,” Hamm said. “You have to get up, whether from the pew, or the couch, and go out and serve others.”
Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.