Moral March: Ongoing Lessons in Civil Rights History

This is the fourth in a series of entries from the UMass community celebrating Black History Month. In this installment, Linker, a native North Carolinian, explores the importance of Moral Monday marches in her home state, connecting the protests to a long history of civil rights activism.

HKonJ 1
Photograph courtesy of Jessica Injejikian

By Destiney Linker, Ph.D. Student, Department of History

“There is an organizing fervor like we have not seen since the 1960s that is beginning right here in North Carolina. This is our Selma.” – Rev. William Barber

Many North Carolinians express pride at being residents of the historically progressive Southern state. Given North Carolina’s history of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and forced sterilization, among other nefarious institutions, the word “progressive” should not be used lightly when referring to the state’s past. Still, North Carolina was the last state to secede from the Union (May 21, 1861), and, until the election of the current government in 2010 (legislature) and 2012 (governor’s mansion), Republicans had not seized control in the state in over 100 years. These are points that many liberal and progressive North Carolina residents will cite when lamenting the state’s withdrawal from moderate politics.

Since the election of former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory to the governor’s mansion in 2012, North Carolinians have watched with the rest of the nation as the Republican legislature and government passed law after law that disproportionately affected students, teachers, women, African Americans, and the poor. So far, the Republican government has passed the following measures:

1) March 6, 2013: Governor Pat McCrory signs into law legislation which denies expanded Medicaid to about 500,000 North Carolinians. The Medicaid expansion was a part of federal healthcare reform. The measure also waived the creation of a state health exchange. Instead, beginning in October, North Carolinians were left to purchase their insurance from the federal exchange.

2) June-July 2013: Theorizing that unemployment benefits do not provide incentive for people to rejoin the work force, North Carolina Republicans slashed unemployment benefits in 2013. Whereas the unemployed could previously draw on 73 weeks of unemployment insurance, now they can only collect 20 weeks. The state also now requires that unemployed persons must have worked in the state 6 out of the last 15 months in order to collect unemployment benefits.

3) June 19, 2013: McCrory signed into law a repeal of the Racial Justice Act. The Racial Justice Act allowed death row inmates to seek a reduced sentence if they were able to prove that their case was influenced by racial bias. In approving the bill, McCrory intended the law to restart executions, claiming that the Racial Justice Act set up “procedural barriers” that had stalled executions since 2006.

4) July 29, 2013: While reproductive right activists protested outside the governor’s mansion for 12 hours, McCrory approved a bill that requires abortion clinics to conform to some of the same standards as ambulatory surgery clinics (even though during his campaign he said he would not sign any law further restricting abortion). Under the measure, abortions can no longer be covered under county and city insurance plans. North Carolinians can no longer pay for abortions through state health exchange coverage. The bill also allows healthcare providers to opt out of performing abortions if they conscientiously object. Reportedly, there was only one clinic in North Carolina that conformed to ambulatory surgery clinic regulations. That clinic, located in Asheville, had its license suspended in August 2013.

5) August 12, 2013: McCrory signed into law the harshest voter ID bill in the country, the first of its kind passed after the Supreme Court struck down portions of the Voting Rights Act. The law requires voters to present picture IDs at the polls. It also shortened the early voting period from 17 to 10 days and eliminated the same-day voter registration option. The law also levies a fine against parents whose children are college students and vote while away at college.

6) Summer 2013: The Republican government approves a budget that includes severe cuts to education, including the purge of 9,000 jobs. The budget eliminates funding for textbooks by $77.4 million and for classroom supplies by $45.7 million. The budget also moves further toward the privatization of education by allowing for $50 million in private school vouchers. The new budget eliminates funding for the merit-based Teaching Fellows Program, through which many North Carolina educators receive their money for college.

These measures carried forth by NC Republican lawmakers have been traced to the influence of Art Pope, the man who funds the conservative think tanks the Civitas Institute and the John Locke Foundation. Pope bankrolled the campaigns of numerous candidates for NC public office in 2010 and 2012, and, when elected governor in 2012, McCrory named him the state’s Deputy Budget Director. (For more information on the widespread changes taking place in North Carolina and the money behind them, watch Bill Moyer’s “North Carolina: State of Conflict” here.)

The conservative upheaval in North Carolina has gained national attention through its coverage in mainstream media, most notably via Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow. The inspiring and diverse coalition of protestors that has mobilized to challenge what they see as the rapid-fire rolling back of the state’s progress has garnered much less attention, however. On Saturday February 8, 2014, they demanded attention. An estimated 80,000-100,000 protestors from all over the state and country converged on Raleigh for the Historic Thousands Jones Street People’s Assembly (known as HKonJ and Moral March). This was the 8th HKonJ march, but it’s the first to reach this size, fueled by the Moral Monday movement. Beginning in April of 2013, protestors began staging sit-ins, stand-ins, and march-ins at the North Carolina state capitol. Termed “Moral Mondays,” the actions lasted for 13 Mondays and have spread throughout the South, and even to New York. Standing for a number of different issues, protestors gather around one common theme: the demand for justice and progress. While the NC Republican party has attempted to paint the Moral Monday movement as agitated by outside leftist influences, most sources point to the wide range of political beliefs — from progressive Christian to revolutionary socialist to moderate Republican — present at the weekly actions. Testimonies (attached below) from participants of the HKonJ march also attest to this theory.

HKonJ 2
Photograph courtesy of Jessica Injejikian

The Moral Monday movement may seem like something new and exciting. It most certainly is exciting, but it is not exactly new. The tactics and rhetoric employed by Moral Monday activists are embedded in a longer history of civil rights struggles in North Carolina. As Ari Berman from The Nation noted, it was fitting that the HKonJ march began at Shaw University in the month of February, since the Civil Rights Movement gained new life in the same place 44 years ago. On February 1, 1960, four Black NC A&T students staged a sit-in at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. They kicked off the 1960s portion of the Civil Rights Movement and brought civil disobedience to a new demographic — students. Two months later, students at Shaw University in Raleigh formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), one of the most prominent Civil Rights organizations, known for its voter registration drives, sit-ins, boycotts, and other civil disobedience actions in the South.

Moral Monday protestors believe they are carrying on the tradition of the Civil Rights movement in fighting against modern injustices. The state government has responded by ordering the arrest of over 1,000 protestors to date. Among those arrested was 92 year-old Rosanell Eaton. An African American, Eaton compared North Carolina’s voter ID bill to the denial of African Americans the right to vote: “Here I am at 92 years old doing the same battling. I have registered over 4,000 citizens in the state, and at it again, alongside Republicans’ efforts to eliminate and cut early voting. . . .We need more, and not less, public access to the ballot.” Reverend William Barber, the head of the North Carolina NAACP and the energizer-leader of Moral Mondays, had this to say about the movement in an interview with NPR’s Celeste Headlee:

“What we have found since we have done Moral Mondays, less than one out of five North Carolinians now agree with the legislature. Moral Monday is more popular than they are. The governor’s poll numbers have dropped over 20 to 30 percent. They’ve done [a] 180-degree turn in the state in 180 days, and North Carolinians across this state are fed up with it. We had hoped that by doing civil nonviolent disobedience that they would come to their senses, but we also knew that, in that tradition, if they did not come to their senses, our work was to wake up the consciousness and the senses of the people of North Carolina. And it has, we’ve done that across this state, across the nation, and now we’re organizing like never before.

“Our lawyers, like Allison Riggs and Anita Earls, and Advancement Project and other groups are ready to kick in and do the things we’ve got to do legally. Pulpits are catching on fire across this state. There is an organizing fervor like we have not seen since the 1960s that is beginning right here in North Carolina. This is our Selma.”

Although many thought the Moral Monday movement would end when the legislative session did in summer of 2013, it has spread. On August 5, 2013, Mountain Moral Mondays in Asheville, NC, kicked off. This year, Moral Monday activists envision the HKonJ march that happened two weeks ago as their kick-off for the year. With protestors connecting their issues to the struggles of the past, the spotlight is on North Carolina. Where will this wave of protests take North Carolina? Will it sustain itself long enough and effectively enough to really earn the title “movement”? What will its national consequences look like? These are questions that may not be answered in the near future, but they are questions that any historian of the United States should be eager to explore.

For a further explanation of the annual HKonJ march, see the Web site.

Testimonies from HKonJ participants:

Jessica Injejikian: “I marched with many groups because the Moral March is the mass intersection. I rode a Greenpeace shuttle out from Charlotte, thinking of the coal ash spill in Eden, NC. I marched with the NC Student Power Union for lower tuition, with FIST against imperialism, with teachers and Raise Up for decent wages and dignity, with NC Vote Defenders to protect slipping access to the ballot box…I could go on! It was empowering to feel and see the awesome community in NC that is ready to stand up to our state’s regressive, sellout legislature. We’ve had enough, and I’m excited to see what the rest of the year holds!”

Rachele Zecca: “I marched with Planned Parenthood at the Moral March on Raleigh. I wanted to march because I believe that North Carolina can do better. I also felt that it was a historical and important moment of critical mass and that to not be a part of it would be a disservice to all those who are and who will be suffering the consequences of the legislation that came out of the 2013 session. I do think that the causes that we were all marching for are a continuance of larger, long standing movements. For me, the best part of the march was that people were able to come together and appreciate each other’s causes. I think this isn’t always the case and that the progressive segment of our population has had a difficult time presenting a united front (probably because we represent so many different issues and peoples). So it was incredibly inspiring to see people be excited about supporting other causes. I had a giant roll of Planned Parenthood stickers and people kept coming up to me and asking if they could have one and then we would talk about why we were there. And people were passing out buttons, and fliers, and exchanging petitions and information. People were almost giddy and there was such a positive vibe in the crowd. It was really cool.”

Charles Howell: “One word comes to mind when I think of HkonJ—fellowship! I went to get fueled up on love! What else is going to sustain a movement that calls for change? I needed that moment of immense love of fellowship with [an] activist family from around the state and especially from my campus. There is a growing movement of activists at UNC Charlotte who were present at HkonJ: from Amnesty International, NC Student Power Union, UNCC Feminist Union, etc., even some Philosophy club members and faculty from other departments attended. And now we bring that once in a lifetime experience back to Charlotte with the message that we can make a change. Each and every one of us makes a difference. Those who were in Raleigh February 8th can testify to that.”

Ben Lassiter: “I saw somewhere reading about [HKonJ] that it was one the largest Southern marches in a long time, maybe since the 1960s. The 14 points of HKonJ make demands to address reactionary aspects of the South’s past, like voting rights, finding for HBCUs, discrimination in hiring for state jobs, prison reform & collective bargaining. The state [R]epublicans want to push NC backwards and meanwhile the thousands of people at the march represent our best future.”

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