What’s Next for the Moral Monday Movement?
Raleigh, N.C.—On February 1, 1960, four black students at North Carolina A&T kicked off the decade’s civil rights movement by trying to eat at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Greensboro. Two months later, young activists founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at Shaw University in Raleigh, which would transform the South through sit-ins, Freedom Rides and voter registration drives.
So it was fitting that when North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement held a massive “Moral March” in Raleigh on February 8, it began at Shaw University, exactly fifty-four years after North Carolina’s trail-blazing role in the civil rights movement. Tens of thousands of activists from thirty-two states—representing all different backgrounds, races and causes—marched from Shaw to the State Capitol, protesting the right-wing policies of the government (sample sign: Welcome to North Carolina. Turn Your Watch Back 50 Years!) and rallying for economic fairness, equal justice, labor rights, voting rights, universal healthcare and public education.
The North Carolina NAACP estimated that upward of 80,000 people attended; the police said they’d granted a permit for up to 30,000. Either way, it was the largest civil rights rally in the South since the legendary Selma-to-Montgomery march in support of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
The weekly Moral Monday protests at the North Carolina Statehouse transformed state politics in 2013, capturing the hearts and minds of progressive activists across the nation. “This Moral March inaugurates a fresh year of grassroots empowerment, voter education, litigation and nonviolent direct action,” said the Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the Moral Monday movement, in his keynote speech. If the February 8 rally was any indication, the movement will be bigger and broader in 2014. “If you thought we fought hard in 2013,” Barber wrote in January, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Since taking over the Legislature in 2010 and the governor’s mansion in 2012—controlling state government for the first time since 1896—North Carolina Republicans have transformed a state long regarded as one of the most progressive in the South into Alabama virtually overnight. They eliminated the state earned-income tax credit for 900,000 people; refused Medicaid coverage for 500,000; ended federal unemployment benefits for 170,000; cut $200 million to public education; slashed taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 80 percent; passed one of the country’s most draconian anti-choice laws; and enacted the country’s harshest voting restrictions, which mandate strict voter ID, cut early voting, eliminate same-day registration and ax public financing of judicial races, among other things.
Last April 29, after the new voting restrictions were introduced, Barber and sixteen other ministers and civil rights veterans were arrested inside the State Legislature for trespassing and failure to disperse. Barber called it a peaceful “pray-in.” The next week, thirty more people were arrested. The numbers grew quickly. By the end of July, when the Legislature adjourned for the year, thirteen protests had been held at the General Assembly and nearly 1,000 people had been arrested, most for the first time in their lives.
Barber took the show on the road when the Legislature left town, holding twenty-five rallies across the state, in progressive strongholds like Asheville and in heavily Republican mountain and river towns. It was tough to find a week when there wasn’t a Moral Monday event going on.
Though it lost practically every policy fight with the GOP, the Moral Monday movement accumulated a number of victories in 2013. It mobilized more than 50,000 opponents of the GOP’s policies, including some Republicans, turning outrage into action. It changed the political conversation in the state, moving it away from Democrat versus Republican and toward right versus wrong, using real people’s stories rather than statistics, and highlighting those hurt by the policies instead of the politicians. When protesters denounced the new voting restrictions, for example, a featured speaker was 92-year-old Rosanell Eaton, who had to ride a mule-drawn wagon to the county courthouse and recite the preamble to the Constitution in 1939 just to register to vote. A clip of Eaton chanting “Fed up, fired up!” outside the General Assembly quickly went viral. Over the summer, polls showed that the Moral Monday protesters were twice as popular as the GOP legislature. “It was the rare protest movement that actually had popular support,” says Tom Jensen, director of the Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling.
The movement’s most important accomplishment has been to build a multi-issue, multiracial, statewide progressive coalition, one that North Carolina—or the South, for that matter—has never seen. “In a Southern state, an African-American is leading a multiracial movement that I believe represents the majority of the people of the state,” says Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group that is advising the North Carolina NAACP. “It’s a huge breakthrough in terms of racial barriers in the South.”
On August 4, nine days after the Legislature adjourned, Barber traveled to a Moral Monday event four hours west of Raleigh in Mitchell County, deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the Tennessee border, which voted 75 percent for Mitt Romney and is 97 percent white. In 1923, after a black man allegedly raped a white woman, every black person in Mitchell County was put on a train and not allowed to return. Despite the county’s history and Republicanism, every week Moral Monday activists had been rallying at the Food Lion parking lot and riding buses to Raleigh to join the protests. Barber spoke to the faithful at the packed Trinity Episcopal Church in the tiny town of Spruce Pine. “It is something to behold for the president of the NAACP to be here in Mitchell County,” he said to cheers. (The next day, a Moral Monday rally in Asheville drew 10,000.)
Western North Carolina, which is heavily white, is the home of five new NAACP chapters—including places like Mitchell County, where no one ever dreamed of starting one before. “We saw the NAACP as the most organized and most aggressive group taking action against the Legislature,” said Joy Boothe, a local Moral Monday leader in the mountain town of Burnsville, who helped start the Yancey/Mitchell County NAACP. It now has 126 dues-paying members, nearly all of them white. In fact, the five new chapters are the first majority-white NAACP affiliates in the state.
The Moral Monday movement, though modeled after the 1960s civil rights movement, is more iconoclastic: it’s a majority-white social movement led by a black preacher who belongs to a predominantly white denomination (the Protestant Disciples of Christ). It’s the type of coalition through which the NAACP can be reborn in Appalachia. “We’re all colored people now,” Barber likes to joke.
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