How the Moral Mondays ‘Fusion Coalition’ Is Taking North Carolina Back
Housed in a brick church on a residential corner in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Beloved Community Center is a living monument to the city’s role in civil and human rights struggles, from the early 1960s to the present. Pay it a visit and the people who run the place will point out their younger selves in the decades-old photos of rallies and voter-registration drives that cover the walls. They’ll recount a standoff between local black students and the police in 1969 that left a 20-year-old dead. They’ll tell you how they organized a citywide truth and reconciliation commission after members of the Klan gunned down five people in the Greensboro massacre of 1979. They’ll talk about why, nearly a decade ago, they supported black and Latino workers in the state who tried to unionize a pork-processing plant despite management’s effort to intimidate them with immigration raids. And they’ll look at you quizzically if you ask, as I did when I visited in May, why they joined the Moral Monday movement, which has upended North Carolina’s politics and dominated headlines for the past year.
“There wasn’t a joining,” says Joyce Johnson, a co-founder of the center. “There was a flow.”
Given the news coverage, it’s easy to think that the Moral Monday protests and Forward Together—the movement behind the Monday mobilizations—came out of nowhere. It’s easy to believe that more than 900 people were arrested while engaging in civil disobedience last spring and summer because the laws passed by North Carolina’s conservative legislature and signed by Republican Governor Pat McCrory were just too draconian for a state accustomed to a more moderate leadership. It’s easy to read the accounts of teachers outraged by attacks on tenure, or swing voters upset by McCrory’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and think that the mobilization is under way because politics—aided by model legislation crafted by ALEC and funding from the Koch brothers—just got too ugly in the Tar Heel State.
Yet such assessments have it only half-right. Yes, in the last midterm election, Republicans won control of the State Legislature for the first time since the late nineteenth century. And yes, they proceeded to redraw district lines in a cynical effort to maintain the GOP’s lock on the Statehouse. Emboldened by their win, they’ve passed a voter-suppression law that threatens to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of people. They’ve passed what the spokesperson for a state Planned Parenthood affiliate describes as “an anti-abortion wish list” that restricts coverage for city and county employees and requires that clinics meet the standards of outpatient surgical centers—a change expected to force most clinics to close. The Legislature also gutted the state’s education budget and ended the earned-income tax credit. Those moves infuriated North Carolinians, and the protests have continued into the current summer legislative session, with sixty people arrested as of late June. But it’s also true that years of steady effort among the state’s organizers and advocates made it possible for this particular moment to become a movement.
Johnson’s husband, the Rev. Nelson Johnson, was a member of that first group of seventeen people arrested on April 29 of last year, on the very first Moral Monday. “People see the great crowds on Mondays,” he says. “What they don’t see is all the work that came before that.”
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The Johnsons are part of a curiously named coalition called HKonJ, which stands for Historic Thousands on Jones Street (where the state capital’s legislative buildings are located), and which laid the groundwork for Moral Mondays and the Forward Together movement. In December 2006, sixteen organizations—representing clergy, labor, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and racial justice—came together to form what the Rev. William Barber II, the head of the state NAACP and the movement’s most visible leader, called a “transformative fusion coalition.” Transformative fusion means that each organization came to the coalition with a deep commitment not just to advance their own political priorities, Barber explains, but to advance the various causes of the other coalition members as well. Together, the coalition members would review state policy from an anti-racist and anti-poverty perspective and come up with a fourteen-point agenda, as well as an action plan for achieving those goals. Asked how the organizations make decisions and set priorities collaboratively, Barber replies that the key is sharing a broader vision for the state’s future.
“It’s about fundamental change, not incremental change,” he tells me. “Victory on one issue does not mean you leave the coalition.”
In February 2007, the coalition turned out 3,500 people for a teach-in that merged its various constituencies. Labor, education and criminal justice groups had previously held individual lobby days, but HKonJ established its own annual day for North Carolinians to talk to their legislators about multiple issues—an approach that Barber calls “intersectional”—and challenge them as a united front. The coalition called itself a people’s assembly and proceeded to push the fourteen-point agenda at the state level, while those involved locally registered and educated voters.
Movement leaders are quick to point out that in 2007, Democrats controlled the governor’s mansion and the Legislature. Even then, HKonJ was active. It claims a role in establishing same-day voter registration in 2007 and passing a law in 2009 that commuted a death sentence to life in prison on account of racial bias in the criminal justice system. (Both wins have been reversed by the current Legislature and governor.) That the Forward Together movement’s architects have participated in the equal-opportunity shaming and cajoling of politicians lends credence to something Barber says often: “We’re not asking people to go left or right. We’re asking them to go deeper.” In other words, North Carolinians suffer as a result of legislative changes he calls extremist, and this suffering should worry everyone, regardless of political party. Barber says the movement is guided by a concern for what’s moral rather than by partisanship.
In the years since its inception, HKonJ has taken part in many of the state’s biggest political battles—and, some say, forced them to a tipping point. In 2010, when recently elected Wake County school board members tried to throw out a desegregation policy that had made the district one of the most integrated in the nation, HKonJ responded in Raleigh, making public education a focus of its efforts that year.
“We had to fight what was going on in Wake County because it had statewide and national implications,” Barber says. After months of organizing that included teach-ins and civil disobedience resulting in arrests, the school board members who’d been key proponents of reversing the policy lost their seats. Disagreement over how best to assign students continues to this day.
In 2012, in the face of a proposed ban on same-sex marriage called Amendment 1, HKonJ employed the language of civil rights, emphasizing that the law would deny equal protection under the law. The constitutional amendment was eventually adopted, but Barber claims that the coalition’s organizing helped narrow the margin from the 80 percent victory proponents had expected to a 60 percent win. Despite efforts on behalf of the initiative’s backers to get black clergy to support it from the pulpit, black voters in the state’s five largest cities rejected the measure.
In addition to its tradition of vigilance and response, HKonJ has an eight-year tradition of taking to the streets on a Saturday in February—with the date chosen for its proximity to the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln as well as the founding of the NAACP. So when 17,000 people showed up at the Statehouse early last year, the size of the crowd was noteworthy, but the fact that people turned out wasn’t. It was a show of defiance after the 2012 election that gave Republicans total control of the governor’s office and the Legislature. It was a surge in a movement that had been gathering steam for years. Two months later, the nonviolent civil disobedience for which Moral Mondays have become known would begin.
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The fourteen-point agenda adopted by the HKonJ coalition is sweeping: it calls for everything from support for the state’s historically black colleges and universities to withdrawing troops from Iraq. Larsene Taylor is a healthcare worker and a leader of the state’s first public employees’ union, Local 150 of the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America. Taylor tells me after a Moral Monday rally this spring that it’s the state’s 1959 “Jim Crow ban on collective bargaining” that riles her most.
“That’s my baby,” she says of point number eleven on HKonJ’s list, which calls for repeal of the law that for more than five decades has prohibited public employees from negotiating for their rights. “That’s my plank in the board.”
It’s Ajamu Dillahunt’s, too. Dillahunt is a retired postal worker and a longtime organizer with a group called Black Workers for Justice. He went to the second Moral Monday action last year and, after surveying the scene, decided that what it needed was a labor delegation. He had watched the 2011 takeover of the Wisconsin Statehouse with interest, noting how public employees there had mobilized against the threat of losing the right to collective bargaining, a right that North Carolinians had long been denied.
“Some of us were saying here locally, ‘We need that kind of response,’” he recalls.
Soon, he and more than a dozen postal workers, plus members of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, Local 150 and others representing labor, had formed that delegation. They wore yellow armbands as a symbol of the light that needs to be shone on the conditions of workers, Dillahunt says. He was one of the many who have been peacefully arrested after refusing to leave the General Assembly, and he sees those arrests as a large part of what’s made the movement successful.
“This is the way to get people’s attention,” he says of the importance of direct action. “This is a way to do it outside the ballot box.”
When asked what conditions set the stage for Moral Mondays to take off, Dillahunt uses a phrase that came up repeatedly as I talked with organizers in the state: “A perfect storm.” To him, that storm was the nexus of three factors: the right-wing takeover of the Statehouse, the growing momentum of the HKonJ coalition and Barber’s inspired leadership. Dillahunt adds that he didn’t join the NAACP until he was in his 60s, and he only did so then because Barber, with his fearlessness and commitment to activism, had taken over the helm. Barber ran for the presidency of the state chapter in 2005 on the motto “From Banquets to Battle”—a signal that the organization’s days as a vehicle for apolitical socializing were numbered.
“We weren’t using our power as strongly as we should have,” Barber says of the organization he now directs, which is the largest state conference in the South. Barber is also quick to point out that both he and the movement are political but not partisan. When I suggest that this distinction seems like a PR move to downplay the presence of longtime progressive organizers and make the movement more palatable to the mainstream, he is firm. “It’s not a trick or just a tactic,” Barber says, adding that there’s no reason to exclude longtime organizers at the expense of newcomers, or vice versa. “What we say is, let’s synthesize and build a new fusion movement for the twenty-first century.”
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That synthesis is working in North Carolina. The Moral Monday movement has brought tens of thousands of people into the streets and offered them a way to express their values so that elected officials are forced to take notice. And the majority of those participants would not have identified themselves as being part of any political movement prior to the last few years, Barber says. He points to further evidence of the movement’s effectiveness: the crowds in Raleigh are multiracial but predominantly white. When Barber visits a western part of the state—like Mitchell County, which is more than 60 percent Republican and 97 percent white—the residents come out to see him in droves, drawn by the movement’s inclusive message. Moral Mondays and the Forward Together movement are not only multiracial and intergenerational; they also don’t just involve the usual suspects—and that’s helped attract massive media coverage, Barber says. “The history of the white ‘Southern strategy’ is to keep people divided,” he adds. “This movement directly challenges that.”
Ask Barber and the other coalition leaders how else the mobilization has been successful, besides all the headlines, and they’ll tick off a list that proves the Legislature, the governor and the courts are listening. In May, a federal judge upheld a decision ordering lawmakers to release the records of behind-closed-doors conversations about last year’s law restricting voting rights. Both the General Assembly and the Senate have proposed budgets that would slightly increase teacher pay, though where the money would come from remains a source of debate. Approval ratings for both the governor and the Legislature have plummeted since Moral Mondays started last year. The center of political debate has shifted away from conservative extremism, and the movement has caught on in other states, with activists in Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Missouri staging their own versions of the Moral Monday protests in the past year.
Another sign of success, movement leaders say, is the boost that the Forward Together movement has given to a new generation of activists. Sendolo Diaminah, 28, is a community organizer with Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity who was elected to the Durham school board in early May. Four years ago, he helped prevent 185 teachers’ jobs from being cut. Recently, while campaigning for his board seat, he told voters that it makes little sense to hold the local government responsible for filling in budgetary holes created by the state.
“I won talking about what’s happening in our state,” Diaminah says at a recent Moral Monday rally. “If we have courageous local officials who see themselves as part of a movement, we can actually do something at this moment.”