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.