On February 1, 1960, four black students at North Carolina A&T kicked off the 1960s civil rights movement by trying to eat at a segregated lunch counter at Woolworth’s in downtown Greensboro. Two months later, young activists founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at Shaw University in Raleigh, which would transform the South through sit-ins, Freedom Rides and voter registration drives.
So it was fitting that North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement held a massive “Moral March” in Raleigh today which began at Shaw University, exactly fifty-four years after North Carolina’s trailblazing role in the civil rights movement. Tens of thousands of activists—from all backgrounds, races and causes—marched from Shaw to the North Carolina State Capitol, where they held an exuberant rally protesting the right-wing policies of the North Carolina government and commemorating the eighth anniversary of the HKonJ coalition (the acronym stands for Historic Thousands on Jones Street, where the NC legislature sits).
The day began cold and cloudy, a fitting metaphor for politics in North Carolina last year. Since taking over the legislature in 2010 and the governor’s mansion in 2012, controlling state government for the first time in over a century, North Carolina Republicans eliminated the earned-income tax credit for 900,000 North Carolinians; refused Medicaid coverage for 500,000; ended federal unemployment benefits for 170,000; cut pre-K for 30,000 kids while shifting $90 million from public education to voucher schools; slashed taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent; axed public financing of judicial races; prohibited death row inmates from challenging racially discriminatory verdicts; passed one of the country’s most draconian anti-choice laws; and enacted the country’s worst voter suppression law, which mandates strict voter ID, cuts early voting and eliminates same-day registration, among other things.
The fierce reaction against these policies led to the Moral Monday movement, when nearly 1,000 activists were arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience inside the North Carolina General Assembly. Rallies were held in more than thirty cities across the state and the approval ratings of North Carolina Republicans fell into the toilet. Sample signs at today’s rally: “OMG, GOP, WTF. It’s 2014, not 1954!!!” “Welcome to North Carolina. Turn Your Watch Back 50 Years!” (See my Twitter feed for photos of the rally.)
The Moral Monday protests transformed North Carolina politics in 2013, building a multiracial, multi-issue movement centered around social justice such as the South hadn’t seen since the 1960s. “We have come to say to the extremists, who ignore the common good and have chosen the low road, your actions have worked in reverse,” said Reverend William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP and the leader of the Moral Monday movement, in his boisterous keynote speech. “You may have thought you were going to discourage us, but instead you have encouraged us. The more you push us back, the more we will fight to go forward. The more you try to oppress us, the more you will inspire us.”