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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In 2014, the Moral Monday movement will be active in the streets, in the courtroom and at the ballot box. It will be focused not just on changing minds, but on changing outcomes. Protests will continue across the state—the most recent one was in Fayetteville on February 17—and will return to Raleigh when the Legislature resumes work in May. NAACP lawyers are taking part in challenges to the state’s voting restrictions, along with the Justice Department and other civil rights groups; the NAACP is also considering lawsuits against Governor Pat McCrory’s education cuts and his refusal to expand Medicaid.
The biggest question for the movement will be the impact it has at the polls. The momentum created by the protests last summer for Democratic candidates has been erased by the rocky rollout of Obamacare, says pollster Jensen. Over the summer, Democratic candidates enjoyed a nine-point advantage over Republicans; now it’s even. And because the Republicans ruthlessly gerrymandered state legislative districts following the 2010 elections, Democrats need to win the statewide vote by fourteen points in order to take back the Legislature. “The big things the Moral Monday movement can do is help increase turnout and interest in the midterms from people who usually drop off,” Jensen notes, “and then just generally keep in the news the things that the Republican Legislature has done over the past few years that are so unpopular.”
Moral Monday organizers plan to target forty swing counties for voter registration and mobilization and will deploy fifty young organizers in the field for twelve weeks this year in what they’re calling Moral Freedom Summer 2014. (They’re also planning to field sixty full-time organizers across the South for a much longer period.) “What we don’t know is what happens in an off-year election with this kind of intensity, because we’ve never seen it before,” Barber says. Yet he’s quick to stress that electoral politics will not define the movement. Moral Monday is most frequently compared to Occupy Wall Street and the 2011 Wisconsin protests, though neither one really captures what’s happening in North Carolina. Moral Monday is far more diverse, disciplined, broad-based and leadership-driven than Occupy was; nor is it focused on a single issue, like the protests in Wisconsin, which centered around labor rights and were closely connected to the state Democratic Party. Moral Monday inhabits a place on the spectrum somewhere between Occupy and Wisconsin—not disconnected from electoral politics but not defined by it, either, which gives it a better chance at longevity.
“Most folks understand this cannot just be about 2014,” Barber says. “This is about a fundamental change in consciousness, and building a new type of movement and electorate that will have long-lasting consequences…. When Dr. King went to Selma, he didn’t change who was elected. He changed the climate in which elected officials had to operate in.”
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On December 9, Moral Monday organizers held a strategy session in Raleigh for more than 100 activists from over a dozen states, from Mississippi to Massachusetts, who wanted to replicate the movement in their own backyard. “Everybody in the South has been paying attention to Moral Mondays and eyeing it as a Southern strategy,” said attendee Tim Franzen, a program director for the American Friends Service Committee in Atlanta, who was a leader with the local Occupy movement. “It was really inspiring for me to see the NAACP leading this civil disobedience movement. In my mind, as a young activist, I had categorized the NAACP as an organization with a great history, but not something that is going to lead a cutting-edge, really popping and impactful movement that is going to challenge power in big way.”
On January 13, Barber came to Atlanta for the launch of Moral Monday Georgia. Five hundred people gathered on a rainy afternoon at the State Capitol, placing religious symbols on the steps to represent the people who would die because GOP Governor Nathan Deal has refused to cover 600,000 Georgians under Medicaid. Two weeks later, ten activists, including State Senator Vincent Fort from Atlanta, were arrested after staging a sit-in at Deal’s office. They became known as the “Medicaid Ten.” On February 10, twenty-three more activists—from veteran pastors like the Rev. Timothy McDonald III of the African American Ministers Leadership Council to students at Morehouse College—were arrested after holding another sit-in protesting the state’s “stand your ground” law. Future demonstrations are planned on issues like public education, labor rights and women’s rights.
A day after the first Georgia protest, South Carolina launched its own weekly demonstration, called Truthful Tuesday, when 1,000 rallied at the Statehouse in Columbia for Medicaid expansion, public education and voting rights. “There’s a sense of enthusiasm,” said Brett Bursey, executive director of the South Carolina Progressive Network. “The opportunity is pushing people to move beyond the traditional hurdles that impede us.” The Alabama NAACP has started Truth and Justice Tuesdays, and the Florida NAACP will launch the newest Moral Monday spin-off in March. Meanwhile, Arizona is holding its own Moral March on March 29.
It won’t be easy to replicate what’s happening in North Carolina. There’s no Reverend Barber in other Southern states, and far less progressive capacity than in North Carolina. Organic, indigenous political movements cannot be built overnight. The seeds of the Moral Monday movement were planted back in 2006, after Barber became president of the state NAACP. “It took North Carolina seven to eight years to build this,” says Franzen. “And that’s what it’s going to take in Georgia and other states. It’s up to us to build something that doesn’t exist right now.”