THOSE WHO BELIEVE in freedom and work for justice in our world sometimes grow nostalgic about the 1960s in this country, looking back at the leadership that emerged from African-American churches in the South, drawing allies from outside the region and beyond the bounds of creed. America has a vivid, living memory of faith inspiring public justice. But the civil rights movement did not just happen. The March on Washington and Selma were moments in history made possible by movements that grew out of hard work over the course of decades.
This summer in North Carolina, “Moral Mondays” at the state General Assembly have drawn thousands of weekly protesters, more than 800 of whom have been arrested for engaging in mass civil disobedience. A few weeks into the campaign, some elders started saying it felt like the ’60s all over again. The Washington Post highlighted NAACP state chapter president Rev. William Barber’s dynamic preaching. The New York Times pointed to the significance of hundreds of clergy uniting to lead the movement. MSNBC andFox News set up their satellite trucks. Week after week, thousands of people kept coming.
When reporters asked why, participants explained the concerns: 500,000 people denied health care when the legislature refused federal funds for Medicaid expansion, 70,000 people whose unemployment insurance was cut off, thousands of poor families denied an earned income tax credit, wholesale repeal of the hard-won Racial Justice Act, and diversion of public education funds through a voucher program. The reasons were legion, but they were not, by and large, unique to North Carolina. They were the sort of changes the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) promotes at the state level throughout the country. How, then, did this grassroots resistance movement emerge in North Carolina?
The answer goes back at least eight years. After his election as head of the North Carolina NAACP, Rev. Barber challenged the historic civil rights organization to be “more than a supper club.” He talked about North Carolina’s rich history of “fusionist” politics following the Civil War and argued that the 1960s sit-in movement, which started in Greensboro, was part of a “second Reconstruction,” bringing black and white together to work for justice. In Barber’s read, growing economic inequality, mass incarceration, deportation, failing public schools, and extreme health disparities are all signs that America is in deep need of a third Reconstruction. But it can’t happen, he argues, without a robust coalition.
So, beginning in 2006, Barber started crisscrossing the state, meeting with 20 concerned citizens here, a church group there. He invited any organization working on justice for the poor to join a new HKonJ coalition—“Historic Thousands on Jones Street,” the address of North Carolina’s Legislative Building. On the second Saturday of each February, HKonJ started holding “people’s assemblies” in Raleigh. Hundreds of churches and grassroots organizations joined the coalition. By February 2013, 20,000 people—black, white, and brown—marched on the General Assembly.
Observers of this summer’s Moral Mondays campaign heard Rev. Barber’s sermons on the Halifax Mall and rightly recalled the power of Dr. King’s preaching. What they could not hear and see as easily was how this movement emerged from grassroots organizing that has empowered thousands of people throughout the state to speak for themselves. Yes, Rev. Barber can preach, but he also embodies the wisdom of North Carolina’s greatest community organizer, Ella Baker. “Give light,” Baker used to say, “and people will find the way.” A new coalition is not only finding its way to Raleigh but also charting a path toward the America that has not yet been, exhorting each other on the way, “Forward together, not one step back.”
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, founder of Rutba House in Durham, N.C., is the author most recently of The Awakening of Hope.
Image: Group of people together, STILLFX / Shutterstock.com