The following is an excerpt from The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear by the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Movements teach you to make plans and then remake them on the go. This is one of the reasons why artists have always been so essential to America’s freedom movements. Any artist will tell you that you can’t become proficient in an art without careful attention to the masters. You have to know your history, practice the moves of those who’ve gone before you, and make their music your own. But you haven’t mastered the art until you’ve learned to improvise—to take the wisdom passed down to you and write the next verse of humanity’s collective song. The art of improvisation is about negotiating the unexpected.
No sooner had we laid out a plan to take the dream home to North Carolina’s 13 congressional districts than I got a call from Tim Tyson, my cellmate from the Wake County struggle. Tim said he had heard from some folks in the western part of the state who wanted us to bring Moral Mondays to the mountains. They didn’t want to wait a month to host a Take the Dream Home rally. They wanted to know if I would come to Mitchell County that next Sunday evening, then lead a Moral Monday on the public square in Asheville the following day.
I remembered from my time as chair of the Human Relations Commission that Mitchell County was one of the places I’d been told to never drive at night. Back in the 1920s, after a black man was accused of rape in that part of the state, they had put all the black folks on one train and shipped them out of Mitchell County. I believe in fusion politics, but this sounded like a suicide mission. I told Tim we had a plan for the next month and we needed to stick with it.
Not long after I’d hung up the phone, Tim’s daddy, the Reverend Vernon Tyson, called me. The Reverend Tyson is about 80 years old and a stalwart supporter of the movement. He started talking in a way that only an old Southern gentleman can. “Reverend Barber, I heard you don’t want to go to Mitchell County, and I understand. But I’ve been preaching this gospel a long time, brother. I preached it in Methodist churches that I knew were run by the Klan. I know how hard it can be, Reverend Barber, so I called to let you know I’m coming with you to Mitchell County.” Since he was coming with me, I knew I’d have to go. With two generations of Tysons, a couple of other folks from the movement, and our new NAACP field secretary, Laurel Ashton, we set out to test fusion politics in a county that’s 99 percent white and 89 percent Republican.