Hundreds cheered as arrestees from Wilmington, North Carolina approached a podium outside Thalian Hall. One-by-one, they announced their names, as well as the place and date they were taken into custody.
The last speaker leaned into the microphone.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Sybil West said from the podium, recounting the words of Martin Luther King Jr. “We’re here today because someone is trying to bend that backwards.”
Wilmington was the site of one of 13 (one per congressional district) rallies organized by the NAACP Forward Together movement on August 28th, commemorating the March on Washington 50 years before. Forward Together is one of a number of campaigns under the Moral Mondays umbrella in North Carolina. Moral Mondays, an activist movement characterized by civil disobedience and congressional lobbying, comes in response to a rash of conservative legislative measures — restricting everything from voting rights to women’s health and religious expression — in the NC General Assembly. Almost a thousand activists statewide have been taken into custody since the series of sit-ins and marches were founded by leftist religious leaders in May.
Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, and much of the rest of the Republican-controlled state government, hasn’t taken kindly to the community response. He’s condescendingly offered cookies to community activists while refusing to address their grievances; he has said of their civil disobedience that it “should not be accepted;" and proclaimed that he never intends to meet with NAACP leaders — all the while claiming to “welcome feedback” from his base. Perhaps most absurdly, he’s laid accusations that such protests are “illegal” and a burden on the democratic process.
Let's put aside for a moment the counter-factual suggestion that demonstrations being “unlawful” somehow renders them unworthy of administrative attention. The integrity of the democratic process is already being threatened by the behavior of the lawmakers themselves. As Kristen Rawls pointed out in her thorough analysis of the conservative legislation, one of the more prominent bills — originally a measure controversially targeting Sharia law — had an amendment thrust in asserting hefty restrictions on abortion facilities. “The abortion bill and others were introduced in the course of late-night legislative sessions, evading public scrutiny,” Rawls writes.
GOP legislators in North Carolina — taking advantage of their dominance of the General Assembly — have either disregarded or actively sought to disenfranchise leftists in their community, as a sort of retaliation for Democratic victories in years past.
With the NAACP taking a leading role in the efforts, common threads have been drawn by movement leaders and local historians to other historic resistances of racial oppression in North Carolina. Dr. William Chafe, of Duke University, himself a part of the actions, has pointed to commonality between Moral Mondays and the Woolworth sit-ins of 1960. Chafe said the protests were North Carolina’s new civil rights movement: especially as they resist the racially charged voter suppression legislation — described by some as the most restrictive in the country — that that impedes democracy for people of underprivileged racial and economic backgrounds.
And much like the early days of the 1950s civil resistance, as NAACP activists were brutalized by police and dismissed by local legislators, Moral Mondays activists have thus far been treated as threats to democracy rather than its safeguards and luminaries. Back at the Forward Together rally in Wilmington, West described the diversity of voices that make up these protests: “Look around: there [are] professors, ministers, historians, therapists, raging grannies, and of course just plain concerned, frustrated citizens.” In the faces around her, West saw the people of North Carolina who have had imposed upon them a rule of law that does not represent them or their needs.
Activism takes many avenues, and so the movement isn’t only fighting in the streets and sitting in the legislative building. The ACLU and the NAACP are currently responsible for two different lawsuits, respectively, responding to the 2012 voter registration law. A statement in the Los Angeles Times from the ACLU of North Carolina explains that their suit charges that the law is incompatible both with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Constitution’s equal protection clause — the NAACP’s does the same.
However, as of this writing, McCrory has refused to welcome protesters into his office to seek an agreement (consider: the Kennedy administration not only was swift to meet with civil rights leaders after the 1963 peaceful March on Washington, but itself had a hand in ensuring it was a successful demonstration).
What is perhaps most absurd, though, is the distance that state lawmakers have worked to maintain between themselves and their constituents is that it echoes another silent "voice of the people": the mainstream press.
Major news outlets have limited their coverage either to the laws and the voices of lawmakers themselves, or angled their coverage to imply that the mass arrests were justified. Local publications have maintained consistent coverage of the Moral Mondays actions as they happen each week. College newspapers like The Daily Tarheel at UNC-Chapel Hill have been considerably reliable, as well as allowed space in print for the activist voices to defend themselves. Unlike local writers, their national counterparts have by and large approached the story from the top-down. America’s media giants have declared that lawmaker voices deserve more weight than those of community activists (if those deserve any at all), the very sort of perception that allows for oppressive and shady legislation of this sort to go unchecked in the first place.
North Carolina has no history of remaining silent in the face of social injustice and no legislative measures in decades have drawn this sort of a massive, peaceful community response. West closed her comments at the Wilmington rally by demanding that we uphold Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg proclamation that our government shall be “of the people, by the people, for the people” — that we “bring the dream home.” The community activists gathered there cheered at her words. Until McCrory and his GOP buddies listen up, Moral Mondays will keep on speaking out.