by John Zangas
“Welcome to North Carolina,” reads one sign. “Turn your watch back 50 years!”
You could say that the “Moral Monday” movement and Saturday’s “Mass Moral March” are the backlash against a backlash–against modernity. Since gaining the upper hand in the legislature in 2010 and securing the governorship in 2012, North Carolina’s GOP has gone on a rampage. In response, Moral Monday protests around the state have been growing in strength and numbers. People are fed up with the government’s hard-right turn and its seeming nostalgia for the pre-integration, pre-civil rights, and pre-feminist era.
They came by busloads from Florida, New York, Alabama and Missouri and as far west as Oregon and Washington state to join ten of thousands of North Carolinians in Raleigh, the state capital. They marched from Shaw University to the Capitol carrying signs and banners with their personal messages for the General Assembly on an astounding variety of issues: a liveable wage, access to healthcare, voting rights, LGBTQ rights, renewable energy, the recent coal ash spill in the Dan River, GMO’s, systemic racial discrimination, police brutality, refusal to expand Medicaid, teacher pay, reproductive rights, wealth inequality, poverty, fracking, immigration and capital punishment.
The North Carolina NAACP, headed by Rev. William Barber II, organized the Mass Moral March along with nearly 150 partner organizations. It turned out to be the largest rally for political and socio-economic rights in the state’s history.
The high turnout, estimated to be as many as 80,000 people, was an indicator of an opposition outraged at a legislature whose right-wing agenda raised taxes for 95% of North Carolinians while lowering them for the wealthiest 5%. It refused federal dollars to expand Medicaid coverage under Obamacare. It enacted a bill to drastically limit women’s access to abortion. And, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Section Four of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it passed a new voting bill supposedly to prevent almost non-existent voter fraud. Rev. Barber of the NAACP has called the new voting restrictions “a bill to crucify voting rights.”
“Voting rights were fought for many years in the civil rights movement, and suddenly we’re finding an attempt to stop people from voting or limit their ability to vote,” said Sandra Adams, a volunteer with Planned Parenthood. In its bill, North Carolina enacted some of the worst voter suppression laws in the country, including requiring voter I.D., shortening voter hours, and doing away with early voting. Seventy percent of African-Americans used early voting in 2012.
The discriminatory intent of the voting law isn’t hard to discern. In an interview on The Daily Show, a North Carolina GOP Executive Committee member brazenly admitted that the purpose of the voter I.D. law is to beat Democrats on election day. He doesn’t care if Democratic supporters such as “lazy students” can’t be bothered to get a North Carolina I.D. And, he said, “[I]f it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks, so be it!”
North Carolina Senator Angela Bryant (4th District) called new voter laws “an attack on voting rights.” In keeping with the march’s over-arching message, she cast the right-wing agenda in moral terms. “I think it’s important to stand as a coalition against the immorality of the public policy that we are facing from the new super-majority that we have in this state,” she said. “Cuts in education are immoral and irrational, given the economic challenges we face.” Lack of healthcare for over half a million people in North Carolina is one of her chief concerns.
Critics of the state legislature also find racial prejudice in anti-immigrant policies. “Immigrants that have been detained are being deported for misdemeanor offenses, and 70% have no criminal backgrounds,” said Caroline McGrady, organizer with El Centro Unitario. Parents are being deported, she says, and separated from their U.S.-born children. “Immigrant families are being separated in every county,” she said. “We need comprehensive, just reform with our immigration laws.”
Retired teacher Dr. Mona Hagerty attended the Mass Moral March to stand up for fellow educators. She pointed out that when she taught in the Department of Defense school system, she made twice as much as North Carolina public school teachers do. (DoD school teachers are paid by the federal government on its pay scale.)
“People are choosing to leave the state because they can’t make a living here,” she said. “You can’t support a family and make $35,000.” She held up a sign that read, “N.C.: First in Teacher Flight”–a play on state motto “First in Flight.”
An ecological disaster affecting the Dan River not far from Raleigh was on the minds of environmentalists attending the march. Up to 80,000 tons of coal ash–a toxic by-product from burning coal which contains mercury, lead and selenium–leaked from a retired Duke Energy power plant into the river.
Of the accident, Cassie Gavin of the North Carolina chapter of Sierra Club said, “We think the legislature needs to call on Duke Energy to be responsible and clean up their coal ash ponds… Coal ash is a risk for water quality.”
Emma Greenbaum, also with Sierra Club, was concerned about the hazards produced by another fossil fuel industry practice called fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing. “We’re here at the Moral March because we know that we can’t protect our environment if we don’t protect our democracy,” she said.
Reverend MacArthur Flournoy of LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, was impressed with the march’s turnout. “This is absolutely extraordinary. It has to do with the breadth of people who are here,” he said.
He believes this is the moment to engage others about LGBTQ rights. He’s confident that change will happen eventually, but it’s up to people to make the legislature change. “It’s about the people, not about the legislators,” Rev. Flournoy said. “It’s a wake-up call for the average citizen to understand, we cannot sit by any more and allow people to make decisions for us. We must get active in the social justice process.”
Scenes from Mass Moral March via OrganizerX:
Interview with North Carolina State Senator Angela R. Bryant on how new laws passed in the General Assembly adversely affect education, medical coverage and voters’ rights: