On Saturday, February 14th, tens of thousands assembled at the state capitol in Raleigh, North Carolina for the annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) march, led by North Carolina NAACP President Rev. Dr. William Barber, II. Last year’s march drew close to 100,000 people, making it the largest civil rights demonstration in the South since the march to Selma in 1965.
Rallying around the theme: “Forward together, not one step back,” this year’s event honored the lives of Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Abu-Salha, three Muslim-American youth who were murdered by a White neighbor on February 10th in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, as well as 17-year old Lennon Lacy, an African-American football player who was found last December hanging from a swing set. Many believe that the murders were hate crimes and that Lacy was lynched.
“Emphatic support for #blacklivesmatter echoed from the drumbeat and megaphones on the streets, to the call and response from the speakers’ podium, to the banners and protest signs rising above the crowd,” said Serena Sebring, a Campaign Organizer for Southerners on New Ground (SONG). The largest grassroots LGBTQ organization in the South, SONG marched with the #BlackLivesMatter contingent. In her speech, Sebring declared, “We know that our lives are precious, and that all of our family members deserve equal protection under the law. We stand ready to shut it all down until justice comes for all of us.”
Described as a non-partisan, agenda-focused, fusion movement, on the second Saturday of every February, members from more than 125 North Carolina State Conference NAACP branches, youth councils, high school and college chapters come together along with a coalition of more than 160 organizations, representing immigrant, economic, and environmental justice interests; labor rights; health care; education; as well as LGBT, women’s and human rights, descend upon the North Carolina state capitol, a building which has been deemed by Rev. Barber as a locale of “legislative assault” since the 2012 election, when a conservative Republican legislature took office and, within a matter of days, repealed multiple hard-won measures intended to benefit the state’s most vulnerable populations.
“They rolled back the earned income tax credit, denied funding on public education, raised taxes on working poor.” Rev. Barber describes “the final straw” as the Shelby Co. v. Holder case which took away same-day voter registration, making it “the worst voter suppression bill since Jim Crow.”
“We’ve interpreted violence in a much broader way,” says Rev. Barber, who believes that denying access to education, food, healthcare, and political agency, but making sure people have access to guns is morally reprehensible.
Rev. Curtis Gatewood, Coordinator for HKonJ adds, “We are not going to just wait for the police to shoot one of us to understand that violence is being committed when elected officials sign a law denying Medicaid to half a million North Carolinians, knowing between 1,200 and 2,800 people will die at the end of the year as a result of not being able to be treated for certain diseases.”
Rev. Gatewood adds, “We are centered on a common agenda for education equality, economic sustainability – worker’s rights, raising the minimum wage, and doing something about this poverty in North Carolina. There are over 600,000 children living in poverty in North Carolina.”
HKonJ began in 2006 as a state-government-focused initiative, during a Democrat legislature, to challenge attacks on voting rights, economic justice, public education, and more. Since then, several components have launched, including the Million Voters March in 2008, the Moral Marches to the Polls, and the Moral Monday actions, in which tens of thousands have occupied the capitol building during legislative sessions, with close to 1,000 people having been arrested for peaceful protest.
The assembly has been meeting every year since. Prior to engaging in civil disobedience campaigns, the NAACP and other groups had been attending hearings and debating with elected officials. When that proved ineffective due to the presence of what Rev. Barber terms “Tea Party extremism” in both the legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory’s office, they decided to take things “to the next level,” by engaging in sustained non-violent actions that captured national attention. According to Rev. Barber, when the Moral Monday Movement began, Gov. McCrory had a 50% approval rating; he’s now at 34%. The Republican legislature was at 40% and is now at 19%.
The concept has spread to 12 other states, and recently Rev. Barber was called upon by the Ferguson protesters to advise on a series of Moral Monday actions during #FergusonOctober, the Weekend of Resistance, which attracted thousands of protesters from around the world.
Since its inception in 2006, HKonJ has maintained a 14-Point People’s Agenda with 80 action steps that covers a range of quality of life concerns affecting people of color and poor people. Those points include quality education for children; living wages; the expansion and protection of voter rights; environmental, economic and immigrant rights; affordable housing; and the redress of ugly chapters in North Carolina’s history (i.e., the eugenics program that sterilized mostly poor Black women from 1947-1977 and the 1979 Greensboro Massacre.) More info can be found here.
HKonJ achievements include successful voting, mobilization, and public awareness campaigns aimed toward preventing the unconstitutional resegregation of Wake County Schools (North Carolina’s largest school system); increasing the minimum wage; passing of The Racial Justice Act; obtaining same day voting; securing former Governor Perdue's veto of Voter I.D. Laws, and contributing to the groundwork for the “Eugenics Compensation Program Bill.” The current Republican legislature has attempted to repeal each of these advancements.
Recently, the Wake County Superior Court ruled that North Carolina’s state capitol is public space, a huge victory with widespread ramifications in places like South Carolina, where disrupting the General Assembly is a felony, and Missouri, where activists have routinely shut down government buildings to protest racist policing.
When asked about the dangers of leading such a bold front against White supremacy, Rev. Barber responds: “Anytime you’re moving forward in this country, to challenge structures and powers and racism, there are people who don’t like that. There are people who try to intimidate, people who will lie about you.”
“There are people who would want to see persons killed who are actually trying to help other people live. We may get some threats, but we are more concerned about the threats to the lives of everyday people. Those are the larger threats.”
In addition to putting a minimum wage increase on the 2016 ballot, the coalition envisions an entire restructuring of the criminal justice system, i.e., overturning the death penalty. In the last 10 years, North Carolina has had more African American and White men and poor people exonerated from death row than any other state in the nation, i.e., innocent people who would have been killed if vocal activists had not objected to their incarceration.
There are also plans for a mass, multi-Southern state set of actions.
“The 2016 presidential election raises an interesting new set of challenges for our state,” says Bishop Tonyia Rawls, Executive Director of the Freedom Center for Social Justice (Charlotte, NC). “Like never before in recent history, we will see increasing efforts in 2015 and 2016 to attack laws and rights for Black, brown, LGBT and poor people. Already, we have seen the impact of redistricting, voter suppression efforts, stricter immigration laws and attacks on the poor and youth increasing in ways that will have terrible ramifications for the most vulnerable around us.”
Rawls, who was one of almost 1,000 arrested during the 2013 Moral Monday actions, believes the powers that be seek “to rob citizens of the most basic civil, religious and federal rights.” She touts the Black Church as a major player in the justice movement, even now, especially in the South, and says that organizing Black clergy is an effective strategy for political empowerment.
“The challenges we see in North Carolina are not unique. They are, unfortunately ubiquitous.” says Rev. Dr. Rodney Sadler, Associate Professor of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary (Charlotte, NC). “This is not because every state has the same type of regressive legislation that we have in North Carolina, but because the racial ideologies that drive regressive politics are found from Florida to Washington State, from California to Maine.”
Rev. Sadler, who has also been arrested in association with Moral Monday, adds, “We will need to work for the rest of our lives to overcome the debilitating impact of 400 years of racism on Black and Brown peoples. We have to address mass incarceration, policing policies, under education, un-and underemployment, lack of affordable housing, voting rights, and a host of other related concerns if we are to ensure that Black and Brown people have access to all that they need for good and stable lives.”
To support the Moral Monday Movement, purchase a copy of Forward Together: A Moral Message for the Nation by Rev. Dr. William Barber, II.