Why Rev. William Barber Is Receiving The Paul Wellstone Award

Bill Scher

One week from today, progressives will gather in Washington, DC for the Celebrating America’s Future 2013 Awards Gala and honor, among other progressive champions, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II with the Paul Wellstone Citizen Leadership Award.

Rev. Barber is the head of the North Carolina NAACP and the force behind the “Moral Mondays” series of protests that peaked — but did not end — in the spring and the summer. The swing state of North Carolina swung hard to the right in 2012, and far-right conservatives have been ramming through their most spiteful items from their wish list ever since. The New York Times editorial board chronicled the hate in July:

The cruelest decision by lawmakers [has been] ending federal unemployment benefits for 70,000 residents. Another 100,000 will lose their checks in a few months. Those still receiving benefits will find that they have been cut by a third, to a maximum of $350 weekly from $535, and the length of time they can receive benefits has been slashed from 26 weeks to as few as 12 weeks … North Carolina is the only state that has lost long-term federal benefits, because it did not want to pay back $2.5 billion it owed to Washington for the program…

At the same time, the state is also making it harder for future generations of workers to get jobs, cutting back sharply on spending for public schools. Though North Carolina has been growing rapidly, it is spending less on schools now than it did in 2007, ranking 46th in the nation in per-capita education dollars. Teacher pay is falling, 10,000 prekindergarten slots are scheduled to be removed, and even services to disabled children are being chopped…

Republicans repealed the Racial Justice Act, a 2009 law that was the first in the country to give death-row inmates a chance to prove they were victims of discrimination. They have refused to expand Medicaid and want to cut income taxes for the rich while raising sales taxes on everyone else. The Senate passed a bill that would close most of the state’s abortion clinics.

And, naturally, the Legislature is rushing to impose voter ID requirements and cut back on early voting and Sunday voting, which have been popular among Democratic voters. One particularly transparent move would end a tax deduction for dependents if students vote at college instead of their hometowns…

Barber’s grassroots organizing not only seek to reverse the tide, but highlight what will happen to America if we relapse into conservatism. About 1,000 were arrested over an 18-week period for protesting inside the state capitol. Barber and other leaders are facing a trial in December.

But Barber’s Moral Mondays coalition is not quitting.

Organizers have embarked on a grassroots lobbying campaign to pressure the state legislature to hold a special December session and reconsider its decisions to refuse Medicaid expansion and cut jobless aid. A Moral Mondays rally is set for Dec. 23, to either “celebrate” or “protest” the legislature’s response.

We just witnessed what civil disobience looks like on the Right: shutdown the government, inflict harm on the entire economy, in pursuit of denying health coverage from the uninsured.

Barber is restoring honor to civil disobience with protests that are, in his own words, “based on Gandhi and Dr King’s brilliant examples of nonviolent direct action.” Instead of inflicting harm in order to inflict greater harm, Barber is simply disrupting the halls of power in order to make power heed people in need.

Paul Wellstone would be proud.

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