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Ellen's Review Corner: The Third Reconstruction

This month Ellen’s friend LVM Shelton—a former member of Madison Meeting in Wisconsin, former sojourner at Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, and now a member of Plainfield Meeting in Vermont—is sitting in as guest reviewer. “Can we end partisanship, work together, and transform the conflicts within which we are entrenched?” she asks. “Can we learn to engage in constructive conflict to find right action in the moment?”


Interior photo of Plainfield Meeting House (Quakers)

Plainfield Meeting in Vermont

Reviewed by LVM Shelton

The Third Reconstruction by The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II is partly historical, largely memoir, and partly manual for effective transformation.

As memoir, it is deeply spiritual and dedicated primarily to Reverend Barber’s calls to interrupt injustice, rather than to relationships with family, friends, or the quest for a career. ...”[T]his is not a story about me,” he writes. “The most important word in the justice vocabulary is always 'we.’”   

Reverend Barber’s wrestlings with the angels exemplify a truism: that what we do not know about United States’ history, we are doomed to repeat—and, in our case apparently, with ever greater destructiveness.

The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber IIOther works have deeply analyzed the pendulum swing of race domination, now in the midst of its third reincarnation. In each instance, we have moved from chattel slavery, where human beings became property, or a perpetual underclass, to abolition of the legal structures that make slavery possible. Then, when these large-scale institutional changes appear to reduce apartheid and to foster greater equality, we create a new form of chattel slavery through legal means. With a new rhetoric, this new/old institution is coded or masked in its intent, thus making invisible the new inhumanity—Jim Crow in incarnation two, and the mass incarceration of people—particularly men of color—in the third incarnation.  In some cases, even those who are the targets of oppression are initially deluded.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Reverend Barber argues, we find the beginnings of the third reconstruction. An exposure of the blatant inequities of the criminal justice system has been made possible by free exchange in social media and by the portability of current technologies—our cell phones. In this way, many of those formerly indifferent have been made into allies.

Reverend Barber details his own life experience as lesson to those who would mount the tide of change. He describes the insights of his coming of age in North Carolina, his discovery of his calling to make more just the institutions that govern this land, and his realization that fusion organizing—actions that include all groups that experience oppression—is absolutely essential for any success.

He describes the “Forward Together Moral Movement” and their Moral Mondays, in which he took leadership, as a species of fusion organizing, whose most important assumptions are the following.

1) Real change in the direction of making this a more just society requires that we change the conversation: The conversation must move us forward from legalities, or the order desired by a particular faction, to what is morally right in a given situation.

2) Real change requires that many groups who have suffered injustice by virtue of being on the wrong side of divisions work together. These oppositions include male—female; upper or upper-middle class—lower-middle or lower class; white people—people of color; heterosexuals—homosexuals; cis-gendered (presenting the gender identified at their birth)—trans-gendered (presenting a gender other than that identified at their birth); United States-born or naturalized—immigrant.

That is, Reverend Barber is led to reverse the “divide-and-conquer strategy of post-civil rights deconstruction.”

Reverend Barber’s story-telling is fluid and engaging. He successfully shows us how the Forward Together Moral Movement in North Carolina—nonviolent, but practicing civil disobedience when compelled—successfully reversed some of the local divisions that the late twentieth century backlash had encouraged. 

In his Moral Movement, there were fourteen “justice tribes” in North Carolina that had been wandering in the wilderness of protest  for 40 years, isolated and ineffective. These social justice organizations consisted of men and women specifically organized around education for all, living wages, access to health care, redress for black and poor women forcibly sterilized in state institutions, the public financing of elections, better state funding for historically black colleges and universities, discrimination in hiring, affordable housing, opposition to death penalty and other injustices of the criminal justice system, environmental justice, immigrant justice, civil rights enforcement, and an end to the United States’ so-called “war on terror. ”

In December of 2006, all these organizations first met together and recognized that the same forces were opposing each of them. Every issue was seen as equally important. Particular battles were chosen and, in the course of several years, the battles were won.

Reverend Barber sees clearly that the struggles in which we must engage are cultural rather than political.  The cultural lens we now share distorts morality.  Our cultures, both internalized and institutionalized, must be shifted. The events of the 2016 election have aptly demonstrated that opposition between those working to end various types of oppression lead many to vote for the enactment of one solution—for example, easing competition from immigrants for the lowest-paying jobs—ignoring how the manner of the solution might create gross injustice somewhere else.

Can we end such partisanship, work together, and transform the conflicts within which we are entrenched? Can we learn to engage in constructive conflict to find right action in the moment? Events in North Carolina bring some hope, in spite of the extremes of our current systems of injustice.

Time, Faith, and a lot of selfless hard work will tell.


The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement (Beacon Press, 2016) by The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II. $24 (hardcover), $16 (paperback)

Buy The Third Reconstruction by The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II on QuakerBooks.org now

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