William J. Barber II was only 5 when his family moved from urban Indianapolis to rural Eastern North Carolina in 1968 with a goal of helping desegregate public schools. His father, William J. Barber Sr., was an ordained Disciples of Christ clergy member who taught science in Washington County, N.C., while his mother, an office worker, “integrated the secretarial pool,” her son, 57 recalled. His journey from a teenager in a small southern town to one of the nation’s most prominent moral voices accelerated with his arrival as a freshman on the campus of North Carolina Central University in 1981.
“I first met him in a stairwell at Chidley Hall,” recalled Rodney Sessoms, M.D., who now has a medical practice in Clinton, N.C., but was a sophomore when Billy Barber, as he then was called, arrived for his freshman year. Both being from Eastern North Carolina – Sessoms from Ahoskie and Barber from Roper – they easily struck up a friendship. Attending NCCU together helped create a lifelong bond.
“The atmosphere at NCCU set the expectation for us that we would not be mediocre, we would do great things in our communities, the state and beyond,” Sessoms said.
Even among high-achieving Eagles, however, Barber stood out. “Without a doubt, he had leadership qualities,” Sessoms said. “People listened to him and gave credence to his ideas and words.” Along with intelligence and composure, young Barber had something else: compassion.
“People could relate to him. Today, he is still down-to-earth, despite his notoriety,” said Sessoms, who has served as Barber’s personal physician for many years. “He is someone who lifts up others as he rises.”
As a teenager, Barber was a junior official in a local NAACP chapter and president of his Washington County High School senior class – the first African American student to serve a whole year as president, rather than splitting the post with a white candidate. This tendency toward leadership would blossom at NCCU.
“At Central, we were taught excellence without excuse. We had to determine what difference we were going to make in the world, in spite of any difficulties,” Barber said.
Sessoms recalls helping Barber organize a Martin Luther King Jr. march and program on campus and participating in several of his friend’s social justice activities, such as protesting tuition policy changes that were threatening to squeeze some students out of the institution. “We had nearly 2,000 people out in front of the administration building that day,” Barber said of the demonstration that ultimately led to the policy’s reversal.
In another instance, he led students in a campaign for better voting access. “Our class was the group that fought so hard to get the voting precinct opened up on campus,” Barber explained.
In 1984, Barber served as campus field representative for the Rev. Jesse Jackson presidential campaign, ushering noteworthy visitors to NCCU. During this period, he also met his future wife, Rebecca McLean, a Jackson supporter and Eagle freshman at the time and now a psychiatric nurse.
I always appreciated my peers at North Carolina Central University,” Barber said. “I took my role as their representative very seriously and saw getting elected on campus as a harbinger of my future. Student voices were important in the campus community.”
One constant for young Barber throughout his time on campus was a determination not to enter the ministry. Having been privy to controversies in his father’s congregations, where more socially conservative members sometimes bristled at the
elder Barber’s focus on economic and racial justice, he said he intended to avoid “organized religion.”
A public administration major with a class schedule also full of history and political science courses, Barber began considering law school.
Yet he couldn’t quite shake the words his father said just before his freshman year at NCCU. The elder Barber, by this time in poor health, pressed his son to look at opportunities as gifts from God not to be wasted: “Your life should be used in service to God and in service to humanity.”
Three years later, in his Chidley Hall dorm room, Barber replayed those words and underwent what he calls “an epiphany.” “I called my father and tried to explain it,” he said. “I was in tears. He said, ‘Come home.’”
The pair spent the following few days driving around Eastern North Carolina engaged in a series of conversations that changed the younger Barber’s trajectory.
“We drove 200-300 miles talking about life and ministry,” he said. On returning to campus, Barber preached his first “trial” sermon – one of the final activities of his junior year.
After graduating from NCCU in 1985, Barber attended Duke University for a Master of Divinity degree. He also earned a doctorate in public policy and pastoral care from Drake University. A few years later, he returned to North Carolina as campus minister at NCCU, serving only a year before being appointed in 1993 by then-N. C. Governor Jim Hunt as executive director of the statewide Human Relations Commission.
That same year, the young pastor also began ministering to a congregation in Goldsboro, the congregation he still serves at Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Subsequently, from 2006 to 2017, he led the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and was chair of its political action committee. He remains a national board member for the organization.
Meanwhile, William and Rebecca Barber raised five children, three of whom also attended NCCU. Middle daughter Rebekah Barber graduated in 2016 and is now enrolled as a graduate student in public policy at Duke University.
While at NCCU, Rebekah was active in campus social justice issues, even leading a march to the polling place on campus that her father helped establish while he was a student.
“One thing that our parents told all of us when we were going off to college is that we should use our degrees as tools to get in the door and then work to help other people or build a better world,” Rebekah Barber said. “It’s the same thing my dad was taught when he was younger. And it’s still so important — especially now, in the times we are living in.”
Aligning himself with the needs of the disadvantaged has been a constant in Barber’s life. In 2006, he organized the Historic Thousands on Jones Coalition to advocate before the N.C. General Assembly on issues of fairness and equality in wages, housing, voting rights, criminal justice, and other areas.
His work grabbed the national spotlight in 2013, as he led in a series of marches drawing thousands to downtown Raleigh. These Moral Monday protests spread to other states, as well, and led to the Forward Together Movement. In 2016, he was a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention.
More recently, Barber created Repairers of the Breach, based in Goldsboro, to maintain pressure on lawmakers to end systemic racism, mass incarceration, mistreatment of indigenous people, police violence, and other social ills. His most recent book, “We Are Called to Be a Movement,” was published in June 2020 by Workman Publishing.
The Goldsboro minister also has received several prestigious awards, including the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award, the 2018 MacArthur Foundation genius grant, and the 2019 North Carolina Award, the state’s highest civilian honor.
Barber has accomplished all this despite struggling with severe arthritis that can make walking difficult and often painful. Yet he still participates in marches and stands for long periods of time giving speeches.
“I have my own disability and my struggles,” Barber conceded. “But I can walk. I can march, when necessary. I think it helps people when I talk about and own it. I’m not trying to hide my struggles.”
Surprisingly, perhaps, he is often without pain when standing at the pulpit, preaching about Christ’s love and the need for trust and support, not hate and division.
“We are not the rugged individualists we claim to be; we need each other,” he said. “There’s just not a lot of time for foolishness and division. We must find a way to serve the causes of justice, goodness, righteousness and truth.”