Walking in the Footsteps of MLK, Rev. William Barber Brings Stanford Audience to its Feet

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The Reverend Dr. William Barber spoke at Stanford's Memorial Church on January 17th, 2019. (Courtesy of Stanford University Libraries)

As we commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. this week, it's easy to fall into hero worship. He was so young when he ascended into leadership in the civil rights movement. He was so charged with spiritual righteousness of a kind we rarely see today. He was so eloquent.

Read just a little bit of his famous last address before he was assassinated, "I've Been to the Mountaintop," delivered at Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee:

We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I'm happy tonight; I'm not worried about anything; I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

In the years that followed his death, King's commitment to spiritually based, non-violent civil disobedience has been ridiculed and vilified by some of those frustrated with what he failed to accomplish in his short life. But it's also true that year after year, we celebrate and idolize the man. History books written for children simplify the civil rights movement so that King stands alone, an iconic prophet standing by the Washington Monument, impossible to emulate.

"King's agenda was fulfilled not during the 1960s. If he were here on his 90th birthday, this is what he would be telling us," said Clayborn Carson, Stanford history professor and founding director of the University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.

To celebrate the 90th anniversary of King's birth, Carson reached out to a speaker some call the MLK of today, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II of Greenleaf Christian Church in North Carolina.


"I think, Rev. Barber, of all the contemporary leaders, comes closest to that kind of passion and deep sense of spiritual awareness of the problems of our society. It's almost like [King] is whispering in Rev. Barber's ear," Carson said.

Those are big words, but Barber delivered at Stanford’s Memorial Church Thursday night.

Barber limped to the podium with a knee injury sustained, he said, during a recent arrest in Washington DC. He also struggles with a medical condition that affects his mobility, but the overall effect of watching this former football player struggle to his feet elicits a rush of sympathy and concern from his audiences around the country when he rises to speak. It's something you don't see when you see him on television, seated on a panel on MSNBC or Real Time With Bill Maher.

The capacity crowd of 1,500 rose to greet him with a standing ovation. Half the people in the pews looked old enough to have marched with Dr. King. Half looked just old enough to vote.

The pastor began by arguing against indulging in nostalgia for the glory days of the civil rights movement. "I'm humbled to stand before you as we honor the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and I will tell you, I don't do King celebrations. Because I think we're at a point where we do not need to celebrate as much as we need to engage."

Then he went on to say, "To truly honor a martyr, we must go where they fell, pick up their baton, and carry it the rest the way."

Like Dr. King, Barber challenges his audiences to do something about systemic racism, poverty, the war economy and other injustices.

Like Dr. King, Barber employs many of the same political tools: marches, civil disobedience and voter registration drives. In recent years, he co-founded the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, a revival of the original launched by King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Barber is firmly in the Democrats' camp, and beyond that, the progressive wing of it, but he rhetorically insists on a bi-partisan, historically rooted understanding of American politics, urging liberals to move past their current, obsessive hatred of President Donald Trump.

"Let me say Trump is not America's biggest problem. Oh, I knew y'all wasn't going to clap. That's alright. Trump is a symptom!"

Barber diagnoses instead a "spiritual and moral sickness that has not been cleansed from the veins of this democracy still produces moral emergency we are facing as a democracy."

"America needs more than a new president. We need a new moral revolution of values," he said, raising one eyebrow.

Barber has developed a reputation for his King-like ability to blend politics and theology in his speeches without it feeling forced, and he invoked King's last speech in Memphis to argue for practical action.

"True preaching cannot rest on a page, sit in a song, or travel on a tweet alone. Absolutely nothing would be more tragic than for us to turn back now. It’s movement time," he roared as the crowd rose to its feet.

Those introducing him and Barber himself warned he was on a tight schedule. He would not be able to stay after the speech and personally respond to 1,500 people keen to shake his hand.

As he left the stage, presumably headed straight to the airport, the iconic local folk singer Joan Baez joined an a cappella group of Stanford student singers, Talisman, to sing an old civil rights standard, 500 Miles.