Out of Carolina: Moral Mondays rock the South

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On Feb. 8, 80,000 marchers massed in Raleigh, N.C., in the largest civil rights demonstration since the historic march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

The protest got little coverage in the national media, which prefers to showcase tea partiers of the Republican right. But it was the apex of a movement that has transformed North Carolina’s political terrain in less than a year.

New civil rights movement. The Moral Mondays movement was launched in April 2013, a year after Republicans took control of the governor’s office and legislature for the first time in over a century. Gov. Pat McCrory, supposedly a moderate, made North Carolina a “laboratory” for the tea party’s destructive agenda soon after his election.

He mounted a legislative assault on the Black community, the mainstay of progressive politics in North Carolina. He banned same-day voter registration, restricted early voting, and (in a state where no one has ever been charged with voter impersonation) required photo ID as a condition of the franchise. McCrory and Co. also slashed funds for public education, barred 500,000 from Medicaid coverage, and cut 170,000 from unemployment rolls.

The voter ID measure is cynical and deceptive. Out of 21 million votes cast in North Carolina in the last ten years, only one complaint of voter impersonation has been filed, and that was rejected for prosecution.

Lawmakers’ refusal to expand Medicaid coverage reflects the GOP’s hatred of Obamacare — a hatred shown in one Republican legislator’s absurd comparison of right-wingers opposing Obamacare to the desperate passengers who rushed the cockpit of United Flight 93 on 9/11. The budget gutting has accelerated teacher flight from the state’s already critically underfunded schools. And the utter abandonment of the unemployed is shockingly mean-spirited — as one liberal clergyman put it, “a hideous sin.”

A leader sparks defiance. The Moral Mondays movement is the brainchild of William Barber, an African-American minister who heads the North Carolina NAACP. When the legislature took an axe to voting rights last year, Barber led a small contingent to the statehouse in Raleigh, sang “We Shall Overcome,” and moved to seal off the Senate chambers. Capitol police arrested him for civil disobedience, but Barber wouldn’t back down. The next Monday brought over 100 protestors to the capitol. Each Monday thereafter saw their ranks grow, until hundreds became thousands, and even the regional media began to take notice.

Over 900 protesters were handcuffed for civil disobedience in 2013. Their example helped to inspire February’s massive rally, which drew supporters from 32 states. Marching in downtown Raleigh were red-shirted union members; gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender activists waving rainbow flags; doctors and nurses demanding the expansion of Medicaid, and teachers and students demanding the restoration of funds ripped from the state’s education budget. Some carried the North Carolina flag in the distress position, its colors flying upside down. One handmade banner symbolized the strength and unity of the marchers: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” it said.

As the February rally showed, Moral Mondays fuse the politics of single-issue campaigns, bringing the disparate forces of the Left — environmentalists, union members, socialists, feminists, and civil rights supporters — together in an aggressive multi-racial coalition organized and led by African Americans. The North Carolina campaign has given rise to Moral Mondays offshoots in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida.

In anti-immigrant and homophobic Arizona, activists are bent on repeating the NAACP’s success in Raleigh.

We are all Carolina. It was inevitable that this vibrant fight would spread. In February, Slate magazine reporter Dahlia Lithwick noted that the same laws that sparked civil disobedience in North Carolina are being enacted throughout the nation. “As state governments limit reproductive rights, gerrymander voting districts, harm workers and the environment, and suppress the vote,” Lithwick observed, “we are all North Carolina now.”

On Tuesday, March 18, protestors occupied the Senate gallery in Georgia’s state capitol to denounce Governor Nathan Deal’s refusal to expand Medicaid. They blocked the entrance to Deal’s office, and over 40 were arrested. Dr. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, condemned the Georgia legislature as a “death panel” intent on denying Georgia’s citizens decent healthcare. Republican state senator Frank Ginn called the protestors human excrement!

The Moral Mondays campaign may well mark the beginning of a revived, mass-based, multi-racial movement for civil rights and social justice throughout the South. It shows no sign of losing strength or momentum. And who knows how much farther it may go?

Dean Ferguson, a former investigator for the U.S. Department of Labor, is an activist in San Francisco. Contact him at dean.ferguson@mail.com.

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