Each installment of The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with two men whose lives were altered by a chance encounter. When he was a teenager, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove heard Reverend William Barber II preach, and invited the Black pastor to speak at his majority-white, strongly Republican high school. They fell out of touch for a time, and, when they reconnected, worked together to build a multiracial “fusion coalition” to influence North Carolina politics. They discuss how they connected in spite of their different backgrounds, and the role that friendships like theirs can play in advocating for change and building political movements.
Reverend William Barber II, 57, president and senior lecturer at Repairers of the Breach, a nonprofit focused on morally driven public policy, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and co-author of The Third Reconstruction. He lives in Goldsboro, North Carolina.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, 39, a Baptist preacher, moral activist, and co-author of The Third Reconstruction. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: What was going on in your lives at the time that you met?
Reverend William Barber: A lot.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove: I was 17 years old. I had grown up in tobacco country, North Carolina, in an all-white Baptist church. Along with the culture of the place, I associated my Christian faith with right-wing politics. I was an earnest kid, and I wanted to do all I could for Jesus, and I thought that meant I needed to become president of the United States. So I had gone to Washington, D.C., and I had paged in Senator Strom Thurmond’s office in the fall of ’96.