'Shared power is the only thing that can save us,' progressive Christian leader says

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Facebook, Jose Luis Magana/AP)

The topic of race is white hot in American politics.

Although there is enormous energy and appetite among liberals to discuss systemic racism, the topic generates massive backlash among many conservatives.

Last week, a progressive religious group gathered nine of the Democratic presidential candidates at a Catholic university campus in Washington to talk about systemic discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities, and to argue that these practices also cause great harm to poor whites.

One of the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign grew up as a white conservative in rural North Carolina, and he told Yahoo News that even though he thinks it is vital to talk about systemic injustices, it is just as important to find ways to discuss the issue in a fashion that disarms whites and reduces their discomfort.

“I do think it's a priority because I think transformation requires people changing. And I don't think most people change when they're defensive,” Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast.

Wilson-Hartgrove, 38, has been a leader for several years in the emerging movement to incorporate religious faith into progressive politics, seeking to create space for people of faith outside the Republican Party. He helped organize the “Moral Mondays” protests in North Carolina that began in 2013. He has co-authored a book with the Rev. William Barber, an African-American minister who is a leader of the Poor People’s Campaign.

America’s history of slavery — and the theories of racial superiority that were perpetuated to justify it — continue to haunt race relations in ways that make white Americans fearful, according to Wilson-Hartgrove.

“Enslaving others is an act of war and you can't maintain that kind of subjugation without being willing to fight, being willing to defend against someone who would say my humanity demands that I be free,” Wilson-Hartgrove said.

Wilson-Hartgrove said that his vision for the Poor People’s Campaign is that it brings people of all races together without selling short the value of leveling the playing field.

Growing up in a white evangelical church in King, N.C., Wilson-Hartgrove recalled how the congregation “prayed for a good harvest every year.”

“And we were loved very well there, I was raised by people who made me memorize scripture,” Wilson-Hartgrove said. “At the same time that I was … learning the way of Jesus from people who did care deeply about the Bible, I was also just assuming that to be Christian was to be Republican.”

Wilson-Hartgrove wanted to serve God in politics, but he had no political connections as a young person. His grandfather did drive a Greyhound bus, though.

So, one winter morning in the mid-’90s when he was 16, Wilson-Hartgrove hitched a ride to Washington, D.C., walked into the U.S. Capitol, pointed to a group of teenagers dressed in the blue uniforms of a Senate page and asked a random stranger how to become one of them.

He returned home, began writing letters and eventually procured a spot in the U.S. Senate page program, working for Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican who had fought against desegregation and civil rights for African-Americans.

But soon after that, back in North Carolina, he met Barber, who had worked with the National Organization for the Advancement of Colored People since he was in high school. Barber became a mentor, and Wilson-Hartgrove began a journey toward a more justice-oriented application of his faith, and toward a more progressive view of politics.

He and Barber worked together in 2013 to help organize and lead the “Moral Mondays” protests in North Carolina, and have co-authored a book called “The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear.”

Fear, Wilson-Hartgrove said, is a major barrier for white people to enter into a conversation about systemic racism.

“A part of the fear is when you know internally that you have benefited from a system that has hurt other people. The fear is that if those people had power, they would want to get rid of me,” he said. “And I think that fear is real for a lot of white folks. The problem is that if we can't figure out how to share power and how to be together in equal way, then there's no hope of any of us surviving. We're all on the same ship.”

“Shared power is actually the only thing that can save all of us,” he said.