Southern Revival: The Righteous Progressivism of Moral Mondays

Terrance Heath

For 13 weeks, the North Carolina state house in Raleigh was the focus of “Moral Mondays”  — a progressive movement organized by the state’s NAACP president, Rev. William Barber, in response to what he called North Carolina GOP’s “mean-spirited quadruple attack” on the state’s most vulnerable citizens. The protests organized by Barber, who will be one of the honorees at the Celebrating America’s Future Awards Gala in November, hearken back to the civil rights movement of old. Yet, Moral Mondays may signal the beginnings of a new civil rights movement, fueled by a revival of the moral progressivism of the movement of the 1960s.

A New “Fusion Politics”

What led thousands of people to rally in Raleigh, N.C. for 13 Mondays, to make the statehouse echo with their singing and praying? What fervor moved more than 900 people to engage in civil disobedience leading to their arrest?

The Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina have captured the attention and the imaginations of progressives all over the country, but the movement itself did not spring up overnight. The movement had its beginnings in 2006, when Rev. Barber and others, recognizing the need for a new form of “fusion politics,” began building the Historic Thousands on Jones Street movement (HKonJ).

“We recognized that many of the same political forces that are against, say, gender rights, are often also against education equality, environmental justice, and policies that help the poor,” Barber said, explaining the beginnings of the Moral Mondays movement.  “And so we said that we needed in North Carolina — and we said this is when Democrats were in office — to have a new form of fusion politics if we were going to really address the South.”

In using the term “fusion politics,” Barber is borrowing from and signifying upon North Carolina’s and America’s history of electoral fusion — which  goes back to the 1890s, when the Populist and Republican parties formed a governing coalition at the state level that shut out Democrats.

Back in January, before Moral Mondays began, Rev. Barber explained the role of fusion politics in the story of America.

The new “fusion politics” fuses together political issues that are often seen and addressed as separate concerns. This “fusion” is reflected in the 14 point agenda of the HKonJ movement, which embraced issues like public education, livable wages, health care, voting rights, environmental justice, collective bargaining and workers’ rights in the context of “liberty and justice for all.”

Republicans in North Carolina have used their supermajority to restrict women’s access to abortion, cut unemployment benefits, slash education budgets, refuse federal Medicaid funds, restrict voting rights, and even allow guns to be carried on playgrounds and college campuses.  Republicans illustrated in a visceral way that “the same political forces that are against … gender rights, are often also against education, equality, environmental justice, and policies that help the poor.”

Thus the fates of all those concerned with seemingly disparate issues, under attack by the same forces, are bound together. Moral Mondays effectively broke down issue-based division between different progressive groups and constituencies. The protests were not focused on one or two issues to the exclusion of others. Each Monday focused on such issues as women’s concerns and voting rights, but wrapped them all in the same context.

The Moral Monday’s movement wrapped the issues in the context of community. North Carolinians from every demographic saw in the Moral Mondays demonstrations a diverse coalition that cut across divisions of age, race, gender, orientation, and class to “visibly challenge the extremist right-wing attacks on voting rights, economic justice, public education, and equal protection under the law.”

Rev. Barber described crowds that were sometimes “40 percent white and 30 percent young,” and consisting of “black, white, Latino, young, old, gay, straight, labor, faith, people coming out everywhere.” Many hundreds felt called to become a  part of a movement that stood “against radical ultraconservative legislation which violates the rights of children, African Americans, Hispanics, Women, LGBT individuals, and others who are considered ‘minorities’,” as the HKonJ website described its mission.

“‘We’,” says Rev. Barber, “is the most important word in the social justice vocabulary.” The old “fusion politics” joined political parties together. The new form of “fusion politics” joins people together. Where “identity politics” was used to divide people along the lines of race, gender, class, and orientation, the new “fusion politics” unites people by encompassing those categories, turning into shared concerns issues that have been treated as separate.

Through Moral Mondays, North Carolina progressives are reclaiming “We,” and rediscovering the “inescapable network of mutuality” that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said binds us in “a single garment of destiny.”

“Woe To Those Who Make Unjust Laws”

Despite the diversity of the crowds gathered at the statehouse, the Moral Mondays were distinctly Southern and decidedly Christian. Turning to the Bible, Rev. Barber borrowed the first lines from Isaiah 10 to wrap progressive values in the moral context that informed the Moral Mondays protests.

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
and robbing the fatherless.

Yet, using Biblical rhetoric to define and advocate for progressive positions on political issues didn’t alienate anyone. Moral Mondays expanded that rhetoric beyond the social and economic justice issues that have long concerned Southern progressives, to include gender equality, reproductive freedom, and LGBT equality. Nor were those of other faiths — or no faith at all — excluded, because the progressive values that informed the movement resonated with many other faiths, creeds, and philosophies. Justice, fairness, and love are ultimately non-sectarian.

Not only did Moral Mondays reclaim and redeem religious rhetoric from the right, but the movement also used progressive values to frame and define the debate in terms of defending the poor from the rich and powerful. The result is a progressive, Southern, Christian movement that not only emphasizes a progressive economic agenda, but fights conservative attacks on reproductive rights and LGBT equality.

Where conservatism demonizes the poor, blames the poor for being somehow culpable for their suffering, and thus  justifies punishing the poor, the progressivism of Moral Mondays emphasizes the need to protect and defend the poor and vulnerable.

The main public face of the Moral Mondays movement, William Barber, has found a way to fuse a 21st-century liberal agenda with a spiritual vernacular familiar to almost anyone who grew up in the former Confederacy. The result is an organizing philosophy that’s both authentically liberal and authentically Southern. “I’m a real conservative evangelic,” Barber boomed at the rally on July 15. “I believe what the book says … and the book says you can’t love God on one hand and hate your brother on another.”

The right has hijacked religion and used it to divide for far too long, Barber says. He is determined to seize the moral high ground for liberals. “You can’t simply say, ‘Help me God’ and then pass laws that are hurting people! That’s you!” Barber went on at the July 15 rally. “God doesn’t help people hurt other people! God doesn’t help people take the rights of other people, God doesn’t help people mistreat the poor.” As usual, even the nonreligious protesters—and there were many of them—responded with hearty “amens.”

The approach has been largely successful; not in term of winning legislative fights, but in terms of winning hearts and minds. The Moral Mondays  movement has not a single legislative victory to its name. Republicans in the North Carolina legislature remained unmoved, but not everyone has remained unmoved.

The Moral Mondays movement successfully sounded the alarm about the GOP agenda, and is winning the hearts and minds of North Carolinians. At the end of the legislative session, only 20 percent of North Carolinians approve of the Republican-dominated legislature. Gov. Pat McCrory’s approval rating dropped 15 percent last month.

That the Moral Monday’s movement accomplished this without demonizing Republicans is no coincidence. It’s further evidence of the values that informed the movement from the beginning.

Repent and Turn Around

Mahalia Jackson once sang, “You can talk about me as much as you please, but you can’t get to heaven without loving me.” In that same spirit, Rev. Barber instilled in the Moral Mondays movement an understanding that the movement won’t achieve its goals by attacking and demonizing Republicans in the same way the GOP attacks and demonizes other groups as a matter of policy. Indeed, Barber has stated that part of the goal of the demonstrations is to get Republican in the legislature to “repent” and “turn around.”

Holding out hope for repentance is both a Christian value and a central part of nonviolent tradition of the civil rights movement. Both have their basis in the belief that people can and do change when their eyes are sufficiently opened to injustice and their hearts are moved by suffering. The core of this belief is an abiding faith in the goodness and humanity of all people — right down to your fiercest opponent or your most bitter foe.

Martin Luther King Jr. always said that his movement was just as much for Southern whites as it was for blacks; that ending segregation and its attendant injustices was just as much for whites as it was for blacks. Just as slavery once brutalized the hearts minds and bodies of whites as well as blacks, King understood that segregation and the racism that was its foundation was poisonous to the souls of blacks as well as whites. The Moral Mondays movement expands this understanding to encompass economic injustice that brutalizes the lives and hearts of millions of Americans.

From Dandelion Moment To Movement

Now that the legislative session has ended and the Moral Mondays protestors have left the statehouse, the obvious question is “What’s next for the Moral Mondays movement?” From here it will go local, as activists use their fervor to fuel rallies in the town squares and city halls back home, and translate energy of the Raleigh rallies into action.

There’s another answer to that question, “What’s next?” The Moral Mondays movement is what’s next. Progressive movements have sprung up all over the country in the last few years, in what’s been described as “dandelion moments”.

Stephen Shapiro describes Occupy as a “dandelion moment” in which the movement successfully dispersed seeds to float and root, thereby growing into a bigger movement. We would not limit the seeds to the US Occupy, but include the Arab Spring, the Indignados, the current revolts in Brazil and Turkey and the new phase of revolt in Egypt. All of these mass actions spread around the globe like seeds spurring more mass actions. In the U.S. we certainly see ongoing activism around many issues and flowers of resistance growing.

Shapiro also describes the moment we are in as a potential pre-history moment, asking: “What if we are in a time akin to the early ’60s and in a few years there is a May 1968 moment?” The actions around the country indicate a potential pre-history moment, a lot is bubbling around the country, not quite boiling but getting hotter.

From the protests in Wisconsin to the Occupy Wall Street movement, the pro-choice uprising in Texas, the low-wage workers going on strike to demand livable wages, and the Florida students who staged a sit-in in Gov. Rick Scott’s office to demand an end to the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, progressive movements have dispersed their seeds far and wide. Those seeds took root and blossomed in North Carolina in the last 13 weeks. Its seeds will spread that movement far beyond North Carolina.


Rev. William Barber will be given the Paul Wellstone Citizen Leadership Award at the 2013 Celebrating Americans Future Awards Gala November 6 at Arena Stage in Washington. Click here to purchase tickets or to become a sponsor.

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