For Dr. William J. Barber, II, President of the NCNAACP, the last 12 years of leadership have indeed been challenging,, but, as he steps aside this week, during the 74th Annual NCNAACP Convention in Raleigh, where a new president will be elected, he looks back humbly. He knows that he’s leaving the State Conference, which was $80,000 in debt when he took over in 2005, is in better shape than he found it.
“The one thing that people need to know about the NAACP is that it’s multi-faceted and not a one-issue organization,” Dr. Barber said during a recent exclusive phone interview. “When you are a servant-leader, you have to be nimble. You have to work with a lot of personalities and issues all at the same time, which is why one of the things I’ve shared with people running for president of the State Conference … though it is a volunteer position, though you do not get a salary, you had really better be in for full time work, and full-time service, especially in a state like North Carolina, the largest state conference in the South and the second largest in the country (the NCNAACP was just recently awarded first place at the National NAACP Convention for having the most membership growth in the nation in the past year).”
Recently named President Emeritus of the North Carolina State Conference, and as a permanent member of the conference Executive Committee, Dr. Barber recalls many battles into which he’s led the NCNAACP. These have been in the areas of education, civil rights, workers’ rights, immigrant rights, LBGTQ rights, affordable health care, criminal justice and economic justice. Many ended in victory for the people.
The NCNAACP’s many hard fought victories in voting rights started with the statewide establishment of One Stop/Early Voting/same day registration, and culminated, thus far, with victories in the US Supreme Court and federal courts in cases involving unconstitutional voter suppression laws and redistricting maps by North Carolina’s Republican-led General Assembly.
Barber says these voting rights victories are historic, and resound far beyond the borders of North Carolina.
“To be able to fight and win against the worst voter suppression laws since Jim Crow and the worst gerrymandering since the 19th century…now that’s huge,” Dr. Barber exclaimed, noting that NCNAACP lawyers could not have won without a movement on the ground. “The cases that we’ve won here in North Carolina have literally shifted jurisprudence in this country.”
Barber sees as even a bigger accomplishment building the “Forward Together” movement, a coalition of other multicultural, multiracial groups in concert with the NCNAACP, all in lock-step on a variety of common issues with which to leverage their large numbers during appropriate events. Dr. Barber calls that “historic.”
And what, perhaps, was the civil rights leader’s greatest letdown during his twelve years at the helm?
“I hurt every day that we’ve not been able to get Medicaid expansion (for 500,000 more needy people) won here in North Carolina,” Dr. Barber lamented. “For every 500,000 people, 2800 die every year, according to a recent Harvard study. That means that over 10,000 people here in North Carolina will have died because of Medicaid denial in this State. And I always wondered if we did it differently, could we have put more pressure on. Anytime you have a cause, and you’re in that cause because you want to make things better, it hurts. I think about those folk every day.
However, all in all, as Dr. Barber prepares to make way for new NCNAACP leadership, he cherishes that opportunity to have led one of the most dynamic state conferences in the nation. Now considered a national leader, he will join the Poor People’s Campaign to speak out against poverty.
“It’s been my privilege to lead the NCNAACP, and now that I’m being requested to take this on the road and all around the country, …it’s been my privilege,” Bishop Barber said.