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One Democratic Convention Speech Nailed The Progressive Vision

The Rev. William Barber, II addresses the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. (Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

When Rev. William Barber, best known in progressive circles as the leader of the Moral Mondays protests against the right-wing governor and legislature in North Carolina, was brought to the stage at the Democratic National Convention Thursday night, there was cheering from the North Carolina delegation but polite applause from the rest the hall. They did not know who Barber was, and then they not know what was coming.

Ten minutes later, when Barber finished his address, the entire convention hall was on its feet.

“I come before you tonight as a preacher,” he began, and from that moment Barber took the convention delegates through the convergence of progressive populism and “faith and morality.”

“It may sound strange, but I am a conservative,” he said, “because I work to conserve a divine tradition that teaches us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.”

The core of his speech was a challenge for the delegates at the convention to be “moral defibrillators” of the nation. “We must shock the nation with the power of love.”

It is a message that Barber has been consistently pushing as the director of the North Carolina NAACP and an increasingly sought-after spokesperson for his unique ability to frame progressive policy objectives in a values frame. As Barber put it Thursday, “Some issues are not just left vs. right or liberal vs. conservative; they are right vs. wrong.”

In 2013 the Campaign for America’s Future gave Barber the Paul Wellstone Citizen Leadership Award for his work in North Carolina organizing against the budget cuts, voter suppression and other policies advanced by the state’s Republican government.

The words of the Biblical prophet Isaiah, Barber said, calls on us to “pay people what they deserve, share your food with the hungry. Do this and then your nation shall be called a repairer of the breach. Jesus, a brown-skin Palestinian Jew, called us to preach good news to the poor, the broken and the bruised and all those who are made to feel unaccepted,” he said.

The use of religion and faith to promote “meanness” shows that we have a “heart problem,” Barber said. We need to “embrace our deepest moral values and push for revival at the heart of our democracy. … When we fight to reinstate the power of the Voting Rights Act, and we break the interposition and nullification of the current Congress…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.”

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Isaiah J. Poole

Isaiah J. Poole

Isaiah J. Poole is the editorial director of The Next System Project, a project of the Democracy Collaborative.

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