North Carolina’s New Populist Majority Rallies in the Streets of Raleigh

Roger Hickey

I was honored to be part of a historic and joyful event on Saturday, February 8, as an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 North Carolinians streamed into their capital city to from all over their state to participate in a historic Moral March on Raleigh.

As they were filling the long street between Shaw University and the Capitol Building, the chair of the state Republican party, Claude Pope, went on television and called the march organizer, Rev. William Barber II, the “de-facto head of the North Carolina Democratic party.” He meant it as an insult.

But anyone who attended the Moral March on Raleigh came away with a very strong sense that Reverend Barber is leading a movement that is far more profoundly transformative than politics – although it could affect politicians of all stripes this year and for years and decades to come.

What I saw in Raleigh is the culmination of statewide organizing around a “fusion agenda’ for progress that is a model for the nation – and especially for states in the South. This important movement needs and deserves your support – and you can help them financially here.

Check out this coverage from the local ABC affiliate: http://abclocal.go.com/wtvd/video?id=9425129&pid=9424567

Rev. Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, responded to Claude Pope attacks by reminding the media that the movement has been building for many years, during which he has held leaders of all parties accountable. “It’s not about a party,” said Barber. “It’s about principle.”

Saturday’s demonstration was the largest single event in a growing campaign of Moral Monday protests starting on April 29, 2012 and continuing all last year against right-wing Republicans who took over the legislature in 2010, with the help of big money from Art Pope, a powerful North Carolina retail mogul who is also the cousin of the Claude Pope quoted above. The new legislature quickly reworked the voting system in their favor and then in 2012 elected Republican Pat McCrory as governor. And McCrory, returning the money favors, installed Art Pope as his budget director (and Claude as the head of the GOP).

There was a sense of desperation in the speed with which the new conservative government imposed their radical agenda – as though they knew that the demographic changes represented in Raleigh’s streets on Saturday represents the wave of the future, and they felt the need to lock in every draconian right-wing policy they could impose on North Carolina before the 21st century caught up with them.

Of course their first move was an attempt to repeal the voting power of the civil rights movement:

  • They redistricted the state for future election, aiming to weaken the hard-won power of African-Americans, Hispanics and young voters.
  • They imposed a far-reaching voter-suppression law, making it harder for all but the wealthy to vote.

But that wasn’t enough. They quickly imposed the following:

  • They imposed crippling restrictions on women’s right to health care and on abortion providers.
  • They passed legislation undermining union rights in the private and public sectors.
  • They rejected of the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid, cutting health care for poor people.
  • They created an open door for unregulated fracking.
  • They made it harder to reconsider death-row sentences even if racial bias in trial could be proved.
  • They cut unemployment compensation, throwing away even inadequate federal unemployment compensation funds.
  • They cut taxes on the rich, and imposed new tax burdens on the middle class and the poor.
  • They cut funds for education, while subsidizing vouchers for privatized schools.
  • They have also gone after environmental protection laws.
  • And they have undermined the rights of immigrants and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender North Carolinians.

In the past progressives in other Southern states have looked with envy at North Carolina, whose political system has been dominated by business-oriented, forward-looking moderates eager to invest in education and to attract corporations to the state with research universities rather than a crusade to create a low-tax, low-wage, Texas-style race-to-the-bottom business climate. So Progressive North Carolinians were clearly caught unaware as first conservatives took over the legislature and then the governorship.

But Rev. Barber and the NAACP had been steadily building connections between activist leaders and organizations over seven years of organizing. This year’s big demonstration at the capitol was not the first. Initially known as the Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) annual demonstrations, the network of activists Rev Barber had brought together quickly mobilized after the Governor and the legislator began attacking every demographic group but the wealthy – and it blossomed into a movement when the Republican leaders refused to meet with the groups and on April 29 seventeen leaders – seven of them clergy, including Rev. Barber – were arrested outside the General Assembly in an act of civil disobedience. The weekly Moral Mondays protests would grow throughout 2012, with close to 1,000 people going to jail as part of escalating and carefully planned civil disobedience.

Long years of organizing and networking had built trust among groups representing various parts of the North Carolina community. And attacks on “my group” coming at the same time as attacks on “your group” forged stronger bonds. An inclusive People’s Agenda was forged, supported by an impressive list of coalition partners – from faith groups to labor unions to LGBT rights organizations to women’s groups and environmentalists. Look at these two links, which can both be found at http://www.hkonj.com/about. They are models for almost every state coalition in the nation.

The North Carolina movement has only just begun. They plan a full campaign of organizing, outreach, litigation and voter registration and voter mobilization – building up to a midterm election that, in a normal cycle, is usually a time when older and more conservative voters usually dominate. In a state where African-Americans and Hispanics represent 33 percent of the electorate, it takes only 20 percent of the white vote to win elections. And that final piece of the new American electorate can be found among young white voters and poor and working-class voters – along with well-meaning middle-class voters – represented at the march. Many of these groups will be reached intensively as a new Moral Freedom Summer 2014 puts organizers across the state.

There are many aspects of the North Carolina movement that are truly impressive. After many decades during which the feminists and environmentalists and gays and other groups have built their own independent movements, their coming together with African-Americans and Hispanics is generating the kind of cross-cultural learning and mutual appreciation that old guys like me haven’t seen since the 1960s. Most importantly, people are building a movement informed by a deep sense of history.

At a meeting of coalition partners after the march, Rev. Barber declared: “When blacks and progressive whites came together 144 years ago to begin the long journey out of the division of the civil war, the good of the whole state was their vision – a vision that was blown up by racism wielded by the wealthy whose interests were threatened. Their original populist vision is what must guide us now. That higher ground is the way forward. It is the better way.”

At the end of the Raleigh rally, the tens of thousands of white and black and brown people joined hands and together earnestly sang “We Shall Overcome.” When is the last time you did that? And then as the sun came out for the first time – and we danced in the streets of Raleigh.

People everywhere in America can be profoundly inspired by the movement growing in North Carolina.

As everyone in the streets of Raleigh sang out with energy and conviction: “FORWARD TOGETHER. NOT ONE STEP BACK.”

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