The Long Moral March of North Carolinians and Lessons for the Trump Administration

Anyone thinking about strategies of political resistance might take a long look at North Carolina’s Forward Together movement, which on Saturday held its eleventh annual Moral March outside the Raleigh statehouse. Organizers claimed that more than eighty thousand marchers had attended, surpassing the crowd at the 2014 march, which was then the largest civil-rights gathering in the South since the era of Selma and Birmingham. Reverend William Barber, the charismatic President of the North Carolina N.A.A.C.P. and the leader of Forward Together, said that the first and most abiding identity politics in the South has been white supremacy, which has split working people along racial lines. Barber said that he hopes that his movement will overcome that ideology not by choosing between civil rights and economic justice but by emphasizing both. Barber criticizes preachers and politicians who “claim the only issue we ought to be concerned about in the public square is where you stand on the issue of abortion, where you stand on the issue of homosexuality, where you stand on the issue of prayer in public school, where you stand on the issue of private-property rights, and where you stand on the issue of guns.” In his interpretation, North Carolina’s right wing has been practicing a divisive form of identity politics, and the Forward Together movement is offering a universalist response.

The movement’s roots lie in an annual rally of progressive groups outside the statehouse, a “people’s assembly” that the North Carolina N.A.A.C.P. first convened in the winter of 2006. In its early years, the movement pressed a long-standing Democratic state government to address racial inequality in the criminal-justice system, raise school funding and the minimum wage, and ease ballot access. Organizers claimed that thirty-five hundred people attended in 2007. Then, in 2010, with an infusion of right-wing money and election strategy, Republicans took control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction; in 2012, they won the governor’s mansion. Suddenly, the state became a laboratory for Tea Party governance, with a special hostility toward the poor, African Americans, and gay, lesbian, and transgender people. Republicans passed racially targeted voting restrictions (some which were since found unconstitutional in federal court), abortion limits, and environmental rollbacks. They launched a sustained attack on the political independence of the University of North Carolina. They turned down the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and declined federal funds to extend unemployment benefits. They pressed a constitutional measure banning same-sex marriage, and, in 2016, called an emergency session to enact House Bill 2, the notorious “bathroom law assigning users of public restrooms to the facilities matching their ‘biological gender.’ ”

In the summer of 2013, as the state’s part-time legislature worked through its first season of one-party rule, the Forward Together movement leaped to the front of a rapidly growing resistance. Led by Reverend Barber, the movement held Monday-afternoon gatherings at the statehouse to bear what it called “moral witness” to the legislature’s actions. The gatherings grew from dozens of ministers and activists to hundreds and, by mid-summer, as many as five thousand people. After some protesters were arrested for refusing to leave the statehouse, the movement seized on choreographed arrests for civil disobedience as part of its strategy. By the time the legislature closed its session, in August, more than a thousand people had gone to jail.

The next Moral March, held in February, 2014, drew a crowd estimated at between fifty thousand and eighty thousand people, and Barber announced plans to send young organizers across the state that summer, preparing for the fall’s midterm elections. In many respects, 2014 was a disappointment. Republicans, who had gerrymandered the state after their 2010 victories, won a slim majority of votes overall and kept a veto-proof majority of seats in the state legislature. Then, in 2016, things began to move in the other direction. Federal courts invalidated voter-suppression laws and ordered North Carolina to redraw twenty-eight legislative districts. On the ground, movement mobilization unseated incumbent Republican Governor Pat McCrory, who had been closely identified with the legislature’s agenda, and gave Democrats control of the state’s Supreme Court and Attorney General’s office. Republicans held their veto-proof legislative majority, but the progressive resistance of the Forward Together movement became threaded through the life of North Carolina. Today, Barber holds rallies and marches throughout the state, and a network of activists is prepared to descend on the legislature on overnight notice. Last Tuesday evening, a hundred or so people filled a Durham church, answering the N.A.A.C.P.’s call to show solidarity with a Durham-born asylum-seeker who was facing deportation.

As Barber put it on Saturday, the movement exists “so preachers can fight for fifteen and workers can say ‘black lives matter,’ and a white woman can stand with her black sister for voting rights, and a black man can stand for a woman’s right to health care, and L.G.B.T.Q. folk can stand for religious liberty, and straight people can stand up for . . . queer people, and a Muslim imam can stand with an undocumented worker.” This litany of identities might horrify those who argue that Democrats have fallen away from common appeals, but the premise of the movement is that a universalist program—for health care, voting rights, reproductive choice, and higher wages—begins in building coalitions among people whom politics have driven apart. The point of the new coalition is to achieve for the first time what he calls the “justice and community and the general welfare and the domestic tranquility and equal protection under the law” that American Constitutions, state and federal, have always promised but never quite made real.

On Saturday, an unseasonable seventy-degree day, with early magnolias already beginning to bloom, the march resembled a constitutional convention scripted by Walt Whitman. Traditional ministers from the black church shared the stage with Planned Parenthood officials and self-described queer Muslims. There were doctors, union leaders, environmental activists, rabbis, and white mainline Protestants. The N.A.A.C.P. is so central to progressive political life in the state that it fields nearly all-white delegations from the mountainous western counties. Some participants were dressed for church, some for class or the golf course, and a few for a shift at the anarchist bicycle co-op. Some of the loudest cheers were for the first of three Muslim speakers.

None of this is just good luck or organic affinity. The annual march has been the most visible face of what Barber calls “four years of hard work and seven years of getting to know each other.” When Planned Parenthood and naral protesters raced to the legislature in 2013, to oppose new abortion restrictions, they did so as part of the Forward Together movement. Barber, in turn, has thrown the movement’s numbers and energy behind solidarity with small and vulnerable populations, such as North Carolinian Muslims, asylum-seekers, and transgender people. Shared civil disobedience has intensified the bonds. Paige Johnson, a longtime Moral March participant and senior officer of the regional Planned Parenthood organization, told me, “This coalition really is as rich and real as it seems. If you’re going to jail, we’re going with you, and one of us will be there to make sure you get home when you’re released.”

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Source: The New Yorker | Jedediah Purdy