Moral Mondays protest in North Carolina. Photographer: Eric Etheridge.
On an overcast afternoon in early July, 300 activists pack into the white-columned Christian Faith Baptist Church to prepare for the ninth wave of Moral Monday protests at the state legislature. “Supporters on the right, civil disobedience on the left,” they’re told as they enter. The racially and socioeconomically diverse crowd has the feel of an Obama campaign revival. Eighty people take the left side of the pews, wearing green armbands to signal their intention to get arrested, nearly all of them for the first time. “The goal of Moral Monday,” says the Rev. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, “is to dramatize the shameful condition of our state.”
North Carolina was long regarded as one of the most progressive Southern states—an island of moderation amid a sea of conservatism. But since Republicans took over the state legislature in 2010 and the governorship in 2012—putting the GOP in control for the first time since 1896—the state has personified the hard-right shift in state capitols across the country after the 2010 elections, moving abruptly from purple to deep red. So far this year, legislation passed or pending by Republicans would eliminate the earned-income tax credit for 900,000; decline Medicaid coverage for 500,000; end federal unemployment benefits for 170,000 in a state with the country’s fifth-highest jobless rate; cut pre-K for 30,000 kids while shifting $90 million from public education to voucher schools; slash taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent; allow for guns to be purchased without a background check and carried in parks, playgrounds, restaurants and bars; ax public financing of judicial races; and prohibit death row inmates from challenging racially discriminatory verdicts. “They’ve drank all the Tea Party they could drink and sniffed all the Koch they could sniff,” Barber says.
The Moral Monday protests began in April, after the legislature introduced voting restrictions that would require a state-issued photo ID (which 318,000 registered voters don’t have) to cast a ballot, drastically cut early voting, eliminate same-day registration during the early voting period, end the $2,000–$2,500 child dependency tax deduction for parents whose college students vote where they attend school, and rescind the automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-felons. Pro-democracy groups dubbed the legislation the Screw the Voter Act of 2013 and the Longer Lines to Vote Bill. The clear aim was to dampen turnout of the young and minority voters who propelled Obama to a surprise victory in North Carolina in 2008 and a near repeat in 2012.
On April 29, Barber and sixteen others, mostly ministers, were arrested inside the North Carolina legislature for trespassing and failure to disperse. He called it a peaceful “pray-in.” The next week, thirty more people were arrested, including the former dean of arts and sciences at Duke University. The numbers grew quickly. By July 15, 838 people had been arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience.
“It really caught on like in the old days,” says Bob Zellner, a former field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, who lives in the city of Wilson. “We’ve been waiting for a renewal of the civil rights movement, and this is it.” The protests are building something unique in North Carolina—a multiracial, multi-issue movement centered around social justice. It’s the kind of thing the South hasn’t seen much of since the 1960s, when students at North Carolina A&T in Greensboro jump-started the modern civil rights movement by refusing to leave the lunch counter at Woolworth’s.
Barber is the MLK of the Moral Monday movement, a charismatic preacher and savvy political organizer. “What do we do when they try to take away our rights?” he asks at the church. “We fight! We fight! We fight!” the crowd shouts, standing and pumping their fists. “Forward together,” Barber says, invoking the slogan of the protesters. “Not one step back,” the congregation responds. Simple placards are passed around: Protect Every American’s Right to Vote; Stop Attacks on the Poor and Working Poor; Why Deny Unemployment Benefits?
Inside the lobby of the legislature, activists pack into two floors as Barber leads a rousing rendition of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around.” Protesters can see the Senate chambers through the glass, its members seemingly oblivious to what is happening right outside their chamber. (The next day, in a perfect encapsulation of state politics, the Senate will suddenly attach new abortion restrictions to a bill banning Sharia law.) Eighty-one people are arrested for peaceful protest.
A large crowd of supporters gathers across the street to cheer the arrestees as they leave on buses for the detention center. Cars honk in solidarity. Barber sings his favorite gospel song, “I’ve Got a Feeling Everything’s Gonna Be All Right.” Runners inspired by the Battle of Jericho circle the building seven times. “Why are people going to jail?” a young kid asks his father. “Because they’re standing up,” his dad says. Two hours later, the first wave of detainees returns to the church, holding manila envelopes with their arrest record and wearing pins that read I Went to Jail With Rev. Barber. People cheer each time a new arrestee arrives. Mary Lucas, a retired physical therapist from Pittsboro, describes her arrest as “really liberating.” Many stay until the wee hours to provide support. “I used to hate Monday,” says Derick Smith, an adjunct instructor of political science at North Carolina A&T, “but now it’s my favorite day of the week.”
Courtney Ritter, a 41-year-old mother of three from Pittsboro, was arrested for the first time in her life in June and has been back as a supporter ever since. She wore pearls and a cardigan for her arrest, “to look as conservative as possible.” Ritter, who grew up in Auburn, Alabama, joined the protests because “I felt a moral obligation to all of those people in the civil rights movement who had put their lives and jobs on the line. I wanted them to know that what they did mattered.” The North Carolina of today reminds her of the Alabama she read about in the 1940s. “I made a choice to leave Alabama, and my husband and I deliberately chose North Carolina,” she said. “We chose it because it was Southern and familiar, but it was a lot more progressive than Alabama…. What’s happening in North Carolina almost felt personally offensive to me. I thought, ‘Wow, I could’ve stayed in Alabama.’”
Barber sees the protests as a model for resistance across the country. “We believe North Carolina is the crucible,” he says. “If you’re going to change the country, you’ve got to change the South. If you’re going to change the South, you’ve got to focus on these state capitols.”
The legislature hasn’t moderated its policies in response to the protests, even though its approval rating has sunk to just 20 percent, with disapproval from even a plurality of Republicans. Flipping the legislature once seemed inconceivable because of gerrymandering (a problem echoed in Congress: in 2012, 51 percent of voters cast ballots for Democratic US House candidates, but Republicans retained nine of thirteen seats). However, now it seems possible. “People like the protesters a lot more than the legislature,” says Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling. After lawmakers leave town for the summer, Barber plans to “take the movement that’s come to Raleigh back into the communities,” holding a twenty-five-county bus tour, leading a voter registration drive, and organizing rallies in every congressional district to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington.
The Moral Monday movement has spotlighted the value of grassroots organizing in the South, which will be especially important following the Supreme Court’s decision gutting the heart of the Voting Rights Act. “The silver lining of that ruling is we now know we must build movements, like we did in the 1960s, from Montgomery up, from Raleigh up, from congressional districts up,” says Barber. “States now become national battles.” The Southern Organizing Project, which is closely affiliated with the protests, is hiring sixty full-time organizers in North Carolina and twenty-four in Mississippi for four to six years as pilot projects to change the South. “We’re having to fight for the same things we fought for fifty years ago,” says Zellner, the former SNCC field secretary. “Jobs and justice.” Ari Berman
Earlier this month, Lee Fang wrote about how lobbyists were feting North Carolina right-wing politicians in order to influence their votes.