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NC’s Rev. William Barber wins a MacArthur ‘Genius Grant’ and its $625K prize


William J. Barber II, North Carolina pastor and longtime political activist, is now a MacArthur Fellow. And he marked the occasion Thursday by getting arrested at a protest.

Barber, the 55-year-old pastor of Goldsboro’s Greenleaf Christian Church, is one of 25 winners of the MacArthur Fellowship’s 2018 “Genius Grant.” The award comes with a no-strings-attached grant of $625,000 paid over five years.

When the award was announced, Barber was in Chicago at a protest for raising the minimum wage.

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“I’ve just been arrested in Chicago, and I’m waiting on their process,” he said in a call to the News & Observer. “For minimum wage, in front of McDonald’s headquarters.”

Nevertheless, the MacArthur news was a good spirit-lifter.

“It’s a gesture of support, to do more of what you’re trying to do,” Barber said. “It doesn’t say rest on your laurels, but to keep on pushing. In this work, sometimes you get heavy criticism. People do say ugly things, ‘You just want money.’ I just want other people to have health care. You know, Jesus healed everybody and never charged a co-pay.”

As head of the North Carolina NAACP, Barber gained national attention starting in 2013 by spearheading the “Moral Monday” movement in the state. It was a series of weekly protest rallies at the Republican-controlled N.C. General Assembly.

Voting rights, education funding, LGBTQ rights and other progressive causes were on the agenda. Most weeks featured a fiery, sermon-style speech by Barber.

“My drive comes from a number of places,” Barber said in a YouTube statement about the award. “My father early on taught me that the only purpose of life is to make a difference in the lives of others and to stand up for what is right and just and full of love and full of compassion.”


Over the years, Barber has spoken out about the Racial Justice Act, school desegregation and gay-marriage rights. Not everyone has approved.

Civitas Institute, the conservative group linked to major Republican donor Art Pope, has been particularly criticial.

“He’s a bunch of hot air, a self-serving publicity hound,” former Civitas president Francis de Luca told the News & Observer in 2014.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of Durham, who has worked on the Poor People’s Campaign and co-written a book with Barber, praised him.

I think the work that Rev. Barber has been doing the past couple of decades is this crucial reconstruction work that the nation sorely sees a need for now,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “I celebrate that he knew he needed to be doing this work long before the award ever came along and I’m really grateful they can recognize that too and are willing to lift it up and give some support.”

The Rev. Mac Legerton, minister at United Church of Christ in Robeson County, echoed that sentiment.

“His call to address and lift up the concerns and needs of the poor is particularly important in these times,” Legerton said. “Poverty is growing in North Carolina and across the nation and world. Our society and religious communities have neglected the needs and aspirations of the poor.”

Former Vice President Al Gore also sent congratulations to Barber via Twitter, saying that, “Nobody is more deserving.”

“I am thankful and humbled and overwhelmed and more committed than ever,” Barber said. “Awards should only serve to push you to continue doing the work of justice. We planned this (protest) months ago, standing with working people. Maybe me getting arrested today was a metaphor.”


MacArthur Fellows facts

The award isn’t considered a lifetime achievement award, though nominees are evaluated on their achievements. The program emphasizes that the award is “an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential. Indeed, the purpose of the MacArthur Fellows Program is to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of human society.”

The program doesn’t accept applications or unsolicited nominations.

About 20 to 30 winners are named each year. Past winners include “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, cartoonist Alison Bechdel and author Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Other recent North Carolina MacArthur fellows include musician Rhiannon Giddens and former News & Observer reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones in 2017, and tap dancer Michelle Dorrance in 2015. Another 2018 winner, Kelly Link, earned a 1995 Master of Fine Arts from UNC-Greensboro.

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Previous winners with NC ties

A.R. Ammons, poet, June 1981

Christopher Beard, paleontologist, 2000

Jeremy Denk, pianist and writer, 2013

Michelle Dorrance, tap dancer and choreographer, 2015

Martin Daniel Eakes, economic development strategist, 1996

John G. Fleagle, primatologist and paleontologist, 1988

Craig Gentry, computer scientist, 2014

Rhiannon Giddens, musician, 2017

Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, sports medicine researcher, 2011

Robert H. Hall, public interest journalist, 1992

Nikole Hannah-Jones, journalist, 2017

Shirley Brice Heath, anthropologist linguist, 1984

Carolyn McKecuen, economic development leader, 1994

Jane Richardson, biochemist, 1985

Max Roach, percussionist and jazz composer, 1988

Theodore Rosengarten, historian, 1989

John W. Terborgh, conservation biologist, 1992

Eleanor Wilner, poet, 1991

Patricia C. Wright, primatologist and conservationist, 1989

Daisy Youngblood, sculptor, 2003

Source: John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi
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