February marks Black History Month, a month to appreciate the accomplishments that African-Americans have made throughout American history. This month, we are highlighting the important role African-American figures have played, and continue to play, in promoting true religious freedom and church-state separation.

Among the most important current civil rights figures is the Rev. William Barber II, a civil rights activist, author and member of the NAACP who built on the momentum of social justice work in North Carolina to expand his grass-roots activism nationwide.

When President Donald J. Trump’s administration implemented some policies — and attempted to implement others — harmful to religious minorities, women and LGBTQ people, Barber’s charisma made him a strong leader in a movement of religious leaders standing up to bigotry.

Cornel West, a well-known Princeton professor of philosophy and Christian practice, called Barber “the closest person we have to Martin Luther King Jr. in our midst.” Perhaps this is because, like King, Barber has been effective at tackling a multitude of intersectional issues, including how racism intersects with religious discrimination and discrimination within the name of religion.

When Trump released his first of three versions of the Muslim ban, which appeased the Islamophobes in Trump’s base, Barber passionately pointed out that banning Muslims and refugees stemmed from fear and hatred.

“These acts smell of racism and reek of xenophobia,” Barber said. “They are the antithesis of the Bible, which declares, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

Barber is also a strong defender of the Johnson Amendment, the law that protects the integrity of houses of worship by preventing politicians from using them as campaign tools. When Trump falsely claimed that he weakened the Johnson Amendment in his “religious freedom” executive order, Barber noted that repealing or weakening the Johnson Amendment “is not about religious liberty. It's about religious bigotry.”

“As a clergy person who knows the Scripture, we have the authority at any time to speak out on policy,” he said, adding that repealing the Johnson Amendment “is about loosening more dark money, doing it under the guise of religion to support candidates who in many ways support policies who are the antithesis of love and justice and mercy.”

In speeches, Barber has advocated for marginalized faith communities to come together through intersectional activism, rather than use religion as a license to discriminate, hate or restrict the rights of LGBTQ people.

“I’ll never forget we got in the middle of a LGBT fight in North Carolina. Some friends asked, well why are you involved as a black preacher, why were you involved in LGBT? I said, well, first of all, this isn’t a war between the black church and the LGBT, that’s a false notion,” he said in a 2014 speech in Wisconsin. “If anybody’s understood race in America, it’s the black church … because black people know the original sins of America, which is racism, and because black people know that once that sin was committed it took 250 years of slavery, a hundred years of Jim Crow, martyrs and people being killed. … We should be the last ones that want to see anybody codify hate into our Constitution.”

And Barber continues to tackle harmful rhetoric from the Religious Right, calling them extremists who use religion to divide, not unite. 

“It hurts me to say the so-called Values Summit is not about Judeo-Christian values; it’s not about Christianity, but about the values of the heretical, rhetorical extremism, funded by a whole lot of money,” he declared in advance of the Family Research Council’s 2017 Values Voter Summit. “Their values are cash and not Christ, greed and not grace.”

We appreciate faith leaders and civil rights activists like Barber, who will continue to build on his strong legacy, to fight for equality and true religious freedom.

If you’re a religious leader who would like to help Americans United support religious freedom, join Americans United’s Faith Leaders United.