You may also like
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JENNY WARBURG
This article appears in the Winter 2015 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Derick Smith arrived at the kickoff site for North Carolina’s 2014 Moral March on a raw February morning. He zipped his brown thermal hoodie up to the neck and soaked in the view from Raleigh’s Shaw University. It was a human kaleidoscope: Shriners in fezzes; physicians in white smocks; fast-food workers carrying signs saying, “America can’t survive on $7.25.” Lesbians and gay men with rainbow flags stood alongside alumnae sorority sisters. Scanning the crowd, Smith saw a checkerboard of black, white, and brown faces. They extended, it seemed, to the horizon.
The marchers, estimated in the tens of thousands, had gathered to protest the recent demise of North Carolina’s moderate political tradition. The previous year, the state’s Republican legislative majority had slashed school budgets and jobless benefits, turned away federal Medicaid dollars, and passed harsh restrictions on voting. New laws made it easier to carry a gun and harder to get an abortion, and shifted the state’s tax burden toward the lowest-paid workers. The dramatic policy changes spawned a series of protests called Moral Mondays, at which 945 people were arrested in 2013.
Smith, a political scientist at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro, was well-versed in his state’s history, including its first great experiment with interracial organizing: the Fusion movement of the 1890s, when Populists and Republicans briefly took over North Carolina’s government. The Fusionists boosted education funding, capped interest rates, and made it easier for African Americans and poor whites to vote. But the Fusion government didn’t survive the end of the century: It was violently crushed by white supremacists in 1898. For Smith, Moral Mondays represented an even broader movement—with greater potential for lasting change—than the Fusionists.
The march kicked off. Smith and his friends angled for the front so they could hear the speakers, particularly the Reverend William Barber II, president of the state’s NAACP. Barber, who is 51, founded the Moral Monday movement and lent it a booming rhetorical gravitas. “Every moment in history has its own prophet,” said the Reverend Nancy Petty, a Baptist minister, introducing Barber that day. “And North Carolina has raised a prophet in these times.”
A giant of a man wearing a red and gold stole, Barber invoked the Bible as the standard for the way North Carolina’s elected officials should—but often don’t—behave: “Micah 6:8 says, ‘What doth the Lord require but to do justice, love mercy, and walk only before God?’ That’s a high standard. Isaiah 10 says, ‘Woe unto those who legislate evil and write oppressive decrees and rob the poor of their rights.’ That’s a high standard.” This was familiar scripture for Smith, who grew up in Baptist churches during the 1960s and ’70s. But “until I heard it in the context of social justice,” he says, “it didn’t really ring true.”
Barber, speaking in a deep baritone, telegraphed the movement’s plans for 2014—“a fresh year of grassroots empowerment, voter education, litigation, and non-violent direct action.” The stakes were high: Every legislative seat was up for grabs in November, and there was no telling how much more damage a GOP majority might do, particularly with Republican Pat McCrory in the governor’s mansion. Democratic U.S. Senator Kay Hagan also faced re-election. Barber was suggesting that meaningful change would come not through partisan politics, but rather from a multi-issue movement, fueled by faith, that worked simultaneously in the legislature, the courtrooms, and the streets.
Derick Smith (in striped shirt) holds up photos of the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
The electoral wave that delivered control of the U.S. Senate to the Republicans in November took some North Carolinians by surprise. Long lines at early-voting sites and urban precincts triggered hopes that Kay Hagan might hold onto her seat, even after a campaign that had alienated the Democratic Party’s base. Those hopes were stoked by the worldwide attention given to the Moral Monday protests, the targets of which included Hagan’s Republican opponent, state House Speaker Thom Tillis.
“The arguments made by Moral Monday [have] coursed through the veins of North Carolina’s body politic for well over a year now,” the British paper The Guardian opined in October. “And it is giving the Republicans the shivers.” The shivers turned out to be unwarranted, at least in the short term: Tillis edged out Hagan by just under 1.6 percentage points, and the GOP maintained the lock on state government that it had won in the 2010 legislative and 2012 gubernatorial races, though the Democrats did win back some legislative seats.
The NAACP’s Barber vowed to press on, insisting he had lost no momentum. “Election time and movement time are not always parallel,” he says. “Part of the trouble with some progressives is they make a vote outcome the measurement of the movement. If you judge that by history, the abolition movement would have never continued because they didn’t win at first. The civil rights movement wouldn’t have continued.” It will take years, Barber says, to build a movement that can outmuscle North Carolina’s conservatives, with their ties to well-funded groups like the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity.
The Moral Monday coalition may well provide a blueprint for moving beyond the Republican rout. It’s still young, without the organizational infrastructure that will eventually be needed to transform the political landscape in a purple state with rapidly shifting demographics. What it has done, brilliantly, is revive the politics of moral witness while reaching beyond its NAACP base and garnering support from labor, immigrant, environmental, LGBT, and women’s organizations, along with churches and fraternal groups like Masonic Lodges.
“What’s really exciting about the Moral Monday movement,” says political scientist Patrick Barrett, administrative director of the Havens Center for the Study of Social Justice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is that it’s “creating a movement that gets people out of their silos, where they’re isolated and weak. People are beginning to understand [that] my liberation is tied up in your liberation; I can’t get anywhere unless you do. That’s an incredible glue.”
For all its breadth, Moral Monday has a distinctly religious, and particularly Christian, feel to it. To be sure, Barber places Jewish and Muslim leaders front-and-center at rallies and explicitly welcomes non-believers. But he is also the main act at those assemblies, where he leads hymns and preaches in the rousing cadences of Southern black Protestantism. “If we do our part, God will show up,” he said at an August voter-mobilization rally. “When Moses stretched out his rod, God showed up. The wind came down. The Red Sea opened. Pharaoh was brought down. When they marched around Jericho, God showed up. The walls fell down.” As Barber turned from Old to New Testament, he grew more spirited: “When a boy gave the Lord a few fish and some cornbread, then God showed up, and a buffet came down. When Jesus went to the cross, God showed up, and a resurrection happened. When Thurgood Marshall went to the Supreme Court, God showed up. Segregation was brought down. When Rosa Parks sat down, God showed up. Jim Crow had to step down.”
Odd as this might sound in more secular quarters, it still reverberates among black and progressive white Southerners, particularly those who remember the civil rights movement. “The Left has a pretty impoverished language for talking about politics,” says Kenneth Andrews, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Moral Monday leaders say their words are deliberately intended to reclaim the religious high ground.
The biblical words may help blunt the fact that the movement’s demands are uncompromising: They include living wages, universal health care, and a moratorium on prison construction. In North Carolina, where Democratic leaders hew to a moderate, pro-business consensus, such positions seldom receive such a public airing.
The combination of radical demands and traditional language attracts people who had never considered getting arrested for a cause. “It felt like to fit in with society, you had to keep your activist tendencies down a little,” says Derick Smith. His students had heard him lecture on the value of dissent, but “I was preaching more than I was practicing.” In 2013, three of Smith’s students invited him to join them at a demonstration in Raleigh, where he tested his comfort zone and refused to leave the legislature until police escorted him away. “It’s liberating,” he says, “when you no longer have to hide in a sea of moderation.”
Whether the rhetoric of faith can draw in many working-class whites, particularly evangelicals, is at best an open question. North Carolina is polarized around social issues, and the movement’s support of LGBT and abortion rights will particularly be a deal breaker for many. But for those who support at least some of the movement’s goals, the power of Barber’s soaring speeches can be felt across racial lines. “Language has no color,” says Crystal Price, a 28-year-old fast-food worker from Greensboro whose ancestry is white and Native American.
Price had never paid attention to current events before 2014. “I didn’t really watch the news because it was always somebody dying,” she says. But one night last May she too found herself in Raleigh—singing, praying, and occupying the office of House Speaker Tillis during one of the most dramatic confrontations of 2014.
Price had too much on her mind to think about politics until last year. She had two small children. She was battling cervical cancer. She was trying to muscle through her $7.25-an-hour shifts at Wendy’s. When she met an organizer with Raise Up, a group advocating higher wages and a union for fast-food workers, Price agreed to participate in a one-day nationwide strike. It felt good to join others in protesting working conditions. “I could take my frustration and put it toward a positive thing,” she says.
Raise Up is part of the Moral Monday coalition—a noteworthy alliance in a state with a weak labor movement. In May, Price and some others visited the legislature in the hopes of meeting with Tillis, the Speaker and Republican Senate nominee. She wanted to press him about the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, despite the fact that almost all the money would come from the federal government.
Tillis was about to convene the House when Price and 14 others, including clergy and fast-food employees, showed up at his office. They announced their intentions and waited for his return. When he didn’t come back, they told their stories to the Speaker’s assistant. “I don’t have Medicaid,” Price said. “Obamacare—I can’t afford it.” Her chin quivered as she wept. “And I’m only getting sicker.”
Crystal Price (right, with sign and yellow card), who has cancer, in the Speaker's office: "I don't have Medicaid, and I'm only getting sicker."
“This woman should not be suffering … because of the lack of Medicaid expansion,” said Stella Adams, a longtime housing advocate active in the NAACP. “We pay federal taxes. The money is there.” Price bit her lower lip as she listened. “But we’re going to deny her access to health care, access to life? That’s not right.”
It became evident that the night might end in arrests. Price thought about her two children and decided to stay. “If it means a better future for them, then Lord knows, I’d do anything,” she says.
Civil disobedience has been the most headline-grabbing part of the Moral Monday movement. 2014’s protests were more nimble, less predictable, than 2013’s—a response to GOP attempts to foil activists by canceling Monday sessions and changing building regulations. (A judge halted some of the rule changes.) In Tillis’s office, police implored protesters to quit on their own. As the sky outside grew dark, though, Price and her colleagues settled in. They sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.” They ate pizza. When the mood grew tense, some clowned around. Price held onto her co-worker Amber Matthews’s hand.
At 1:45 a.m., police announced the evictions would begin. Matthews left voluntarily, saying she needed to bring her child to school after daybreak. An officer gave Price the same option. “Go ahead and arrest me,” she remembers saying.
Only 59 activists were arrested in 2014, compared to 945 the year before. In June, two months before the legislature adjourned, the NAACP brought those protests to a close. Summer meant a shift to two new phases: a high-stakes court hearing and a statewide voter registration push.
Just before U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Schroeder opened his July hearing in North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory, Barber briefly commandeered the Winston-Salem courtroom. Attorneys drinking coffee watched silently as Barber, wearing a clerical collar, gathered several of his organization’s co-plaintiffs into a circle. “We pray, O God, for judgment to run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” he said. The co-plaintiffs, four older African American women, held hands and replied with reverent amens.
The four-day hearing would determine the temporary fate of one of the legislature’s most contentious acts: its rollback of more than a decade’s worth of electoral reforms that had helped boost voter turnout, particularly among minorities.
In its June 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared the way for jurisdictions with histories of racial discrimination to change election laws without federal approval. Republican lawmakers took quick advantage of that latitude: They shortened North Carolina’s early-voting period, abolished same-day registration and voting, and eliminated the right of 16- and 17-year-olds to “preregister” at their schools. Voters could no longer vote straight-ticket with a single inking. Those who showed up at the wrong precincts, and lacked the transportation to correct the mistake, would have their entire ballots disqualified. Supporters argued the new voter restrictions would provide uniformity and prevent fraud, even though North Carolina has experienced almost no reported voter impersonation.
The election law overhaul hit a raw nerve within the Moral Monday coalition. Some of the most brutal violence against civil rights activists in the 1960s occurred during efforts to expand the vote. “This is a blood fight,” Barber told supporters. “How dare they trample on the graves of the martyrs?”
Reverend Barber: "I was not going to be an NAACP president who sat around and waited till the Klan burned a cross."
The North Carolina NAACP sued to halt the new law, saying it would deny minority voters “equal and meaningful access to the political process.” The state’s League of Women Voters and the U.S. Justice Department filed similar suits. A trial on all three cases is scheduled for next summer. But Judge Schroeder had agreed to an earlier hearing on whether to block the law for the 2014 general election.
Every morning, the co-plaintiffs showed up at the courtroom in sharp pantsuits and matching hats. Two of them testified. Rosanell Eaton, 93, invoked North Carolina’s legacy of discrimination when she recounted riding a mule wagon to the courthouse in the 1940s, where she was not allowed to register until she recited the preamble to the U.S. Constitution by heart. (She said she succeeded on the first try.) State NAACP vice president Carolyn Coleman, 72, talked about how early voting enables African American churches to transport “souls to the polls” after Sunday services. It wasn’t just the faithful who voted on weekends, Coleman added: “There are people who work two jobs, sometimes three jobs, and so this gives them the opportunity to vote at a time that’s more accessible to them.”
Judge Schroeder, a George W. Bush appointee, sat quietly through the witnesses, never betraying his reaction. After four intense days, including testimony from two political scientists, he sent everyone home. He promised to “try to make a decision sooner rather than later.”
The work chugged along through the summer, in public and in private. Thirty-four young adults fanned out across the state for a “Moral Freedom Summer” of registering voters. Rallies drew thousands in Asheville and hundreds in Durham. A district attorney agreed to drop the charges against most of the 2013 protesters. A Republican mayor, with Barber’s benediction, walked from North Carolina to Washington, D.C., to protest the closure of a rural hospital.
Barber seemed to be everywhere. He won standing ovations from mail carriers in Chicago and steelworkers in Las Vegas. He appeared on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, where he recounted Crystal Price’s battle with cervical cancer. At his North Carolina appearances, Barber was greeted with an almost messianic veneration. He insisted the coalition had “multiple prophetic persons” besides himself, but it’s hard to imagine Moral Mondays without Barber at the mike, directing protesters to touch one another and say, “Don’t get tired now.”
Barber was born two days after the 1963 March on Washington. He believes the timing of his birth was “not happenstance.” That year, Alabama Governor George Wallace declared “Segregation forever,” and assassins killed civil rights leader Medgar Evers and President John F. Kennedy. Barber wonders how much of that news he absorbed both through the womb and in his crib. He was 17 days old when four African American girls died in the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. “How did I hear my mother scream when she heard about those children?” he asks.
When Barber was four, his parents moved the family from Indiana to North Carolina to help desegregate a public school. He recalls, as a boy, traveling with his minister father to investigate the killings of black men. He attended Duke University for his graduate divinity degree, and there he heard South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu describe a God who works in collaboration with humans to prevail over suffering. “God says: You and you and you and you—you are my partners,” Tutu preached. “Will you help me so I can transfigure the ugliness of this world?”
“And I thought,” Barber says, “he was pointing at me.”
Barber’s divinity studies helped launch a career that combined ministry and activism. That, in turn, led to his 2005 election as state NAACP head. “I was not going to be the president that just sat around and waited till the Klan burned a cross,” he says. He set out to build the coalition that would eventually undergird Moral Mondays, and in 2007 it held the first annual march on Raleigh. At the time, Democrats controlled the legislature and governor’s office, and it was possible to get progressive legislation passed. “The Spirit knew we were going to need the Moral [Monday] movement,” he says. “So the Spirit gave us seven years to perfect our movement, seven years to do the deep organizing and relationship building.”
But that organizing remains challenging, especially outside North Carolina’s urban areas.
Gates County, a soybean- and cotton-growing community of 11,650 people and at least three alligators, butts up against the Virginia border at the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp. There, on a Sunday in August, Martell Jordan nervously rose from his pew inside Lebanon Grove Missionary Baptist Church.
Martell Jordan in Raleigh: Trying to get people registered to vote in the midterm election was often frustrating.
“Good afternoon, church family and friends,” said the 25-year-old college senior, who had been raised in this county and this church. He had a wisp of a beard and wore a jeweled stud in his left ear. “Back in 1964, young men and women went down into Mississippi and other Southern states and they organized and registered to vote … Some of those organizers never even made it back home.” To honor the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer, North Carolina’s NAACP had hired young adults like Jordan to sign up voters. He had brought registration forms, he said, and would be available after the service. “One thing I want y’all to remember,” he said to a flurry of amens: “Too many people died just for us to be able to have the right to vote.”
Afterward, Jordan sat at a table and waited. His elders socialized in the fellowship hall. No one, though, registered to vote.
It had been that kind of summer.
In June, after the legislative protests ended, Barber announced that the coming months would be spent registering and motivating voters, even as lawmakers tried to dampen turnout. The NAACP announced a goal of 50,000 new registrations that summer, which would take commitments from church and civic groups. But the most symbolically potent players would be the 34 young organizers.
Jordan, who studies computer information systems at St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh, wasn’t particularly savvy about politics when his aunt encouraged him to apply for the job. He was hired nonetheless, and went through a weeklong civil rights crash course and organizer training that taught him rudimentary skills but didn’t turn him into a polished activist. Jordan learned about the new voting restrictions and about the struggles of other minority groups. Before his training, “I might not have ever thought about LGBT rights. But seeing how [discrimination] hurts people, how could we not support it?”
Gates County was a strategic location for the NAACP: Its state Senate seat, historically Democratic, went to a Republican by 21 votes in 2012. But engaging people, Jordan learned, could be frustrating. Residents here watch the news on Virginia television stations. They cross the state line to commute to shipyard jobs and to buy groceries. North Carolina politics barely get noticed at all. Jordan figured that he could make a persuasive economic argument in a county where the average per-capita income for African Americans is $15,000. “I tell them about living wages: You need to get registered because you got people trying to fight for your right to live and prosper. People are like, that ain’t ever gonna happen.”
This resistance is not unusual in rural North Carolina. “Where you have greater resources, you tend to have a different mindset about voting,” says Yara Allen, an NAACP field secretary. “In a place like [Gates County], where there are a lot of older people—God bless ’em, we can’t do without them. But maybe they’ve seen that, through the years, things have not been in their favor. So they feel a little hopeless about registering and voting.”
Still, Jordan persisted. In the days before the church service, he set up a table at a black-owned barbershop, visited a pharmacy, and drove along the county’s back roads, knocking on doors with a clipboard in hand. Many of those doors went unanswered. A few people registered. One barbershop patron updated his address, explaining the importance of voting at a time when Christians are persecuted and lesbians are allowed to kiss in public.
On the deck of a modular home—in an area where Jordan said “you see more Confederate-type stuff”—a white couple politely challenged him about the NAACP’s opposition to the state’s new voter-ID rule, which takes effect in 2016 as part of the larger elections overhaul.
“Used to be you knew all your neighbors,” the woman said, explaining her support for the ID law. “Now people walk in and you say, ‘Where in the world did they come from? The Middle East? Or Canada?’”
Jordan explained that some people’s IDs don’t match their voter registrations—transgender people, for example. This argument was lost on her. “I don’t mean to disagree with you,” she said, “but I don’t see any problem with requiring an ID.”
By then, Jordan’s job was coming to an end. He says he registered about 30 voters during his summer stint. Statewide, Barber says, Moral Freedom Summer organizers signed up about 5,000 new voters. The NAACP says it does not have summer registration numbers for its coalition partners, but State Board of Election statistics hint that the campaign fell short of its 50,000 goal. The movement’s ground-organizing capacities, it seemed, had yet to catch up with its ability to inspire.
Fall approached. Jordan and his peers returned to college. In Winston-Salem, Judge Schroeder turned down the NAACP’s request for a preliminary injunction, clearing the way for the state to implement its voting-law overhaul. After a brief reversal by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, Schroeder’s ruling was reaffirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
North Carolina’s $100 million U.S. Senate race was now in full swing, though it seemed to exist in a political universe far from that of Moral Monday. Hagan, the Democratic incumbent, touted her moderation—“not too far left, not too far right,” she said in one commercial. Challenger Tillis, in turn, linked her to President Barack Obama’s policies on health care and immigration.
Moral Monday was drawing the support of the state’s white progressives—in such unlikely spots as the Blue Ridge mountains, where Wanda Woodby had grown tired of North Carolina’s tradition of ideological tongue-biting. On a Monday evening in September, Woodby kicked off a rally in the town square of picturesque Burnsville. “It seems that every time I turn around, you hear, ‘Christian values,’” said the former assistant clerk of court. She mentioned a stalled attempt by GOP lawmakers to authorize the establishment of a state religion. “My first reaction, when I stopped laughing, was: Do you really want Christianity to be our state religion? Because you know, if it is, that means you’re going to have to go back to Raleigh and repeal all the legislation you’ve done for the last two years.” “That’s right!” someone shouted as roughly 175 neighbors whooped and applauded.
Woodby heads the NAACP branch in the mountain counties of Yancey and Mitchell, which over the decades have seen textile mills close and tobacco acreage disappear. The region has historically been isolated—“I was in high school when telephone lines went up the hollers,” says the 64-year-old. Both counties are less than 1 percent African American. Mitchell is solidly Republican. Democrats have a slight registration edge in Yancey, though the county leans Republican in presidential races.
Woodby’s parents were among those Yancey Democrats. They believed in civil rights and public spending, and as an adult she became involved in the party. She joined committees, attended conventions, and campaigned for candidates. But Woodby grew disillusioned by Democrats’ timidity and found herself approaching political work with less enthusiasm. “By 2000, I couldn’t bring myself to go to all the meetings and listen to the same thing,” she says. “It was over.”
Around that time, Woodby, a onetime agnostic, rediscovered God and came to see Christianity as another way to address poverty and human suffering. “I thought other people needed to hear the Good News,” she says, so she trained to become a Presbyterian minister and received her ordination in 2004.
At the rural churches where Woodby preached, she noticed how the Great Recession changed parishioners’ attitudes. “When the economy tanked, they saw their children go down the sinkhole,” even after following the rules. These churchgoers, many of whom identified as conservative, seemed to her like natural political allies.
But Woodby didn’t know how to fuse religion and organizing until she watched the NAACP’s Barber on the Internet. “He was saying what I believed down to my DNA,” she recalls. The notion of a faith-based movement that cares about the poor appealed to her. “You have to take that message out on the public square, because even Jesus did that when he went to the temple.”
Woodby had seen progressive groups form and disband, and wanted to hitch herself to an organization with staying power. She and some others decided to form a local NAACP branch, even though there are only 200 African Americans in the two counties.
Their first rally, in August 2013, seemed to tap into an unspoken frustration with the legislature’s new direction. It drew hundreds of people, many of them non-activists. “This is a small town, so everybody knows everybody else,” she says. “And they were willing to be publicly seen, knowing it was an NAACP event.”
Building the branch, though, has been slow. Whites are reluctant to join what they consider a black organization. African Americans are skeptical of a branch dominated by whites. Currently the branch has about 160 members. Woodby says she’s patient; she knows it could take years to influence elections or policy. “We’re in this for the long haul,” she says.
The “long haul” has become a recurring motif among North Carolina activists, including Barber. But as the November elections approached, the NAACP and its allies nonetheless went into overdrive. They sponsored marches to early-voting sites from African American neighborhoods and campuses. They held rallies in cities and small towns. Although they expressed disappointment with Senator Hagan’s tepid campaign, they nonetheless hoped for a victory.
That victory didn’t materialize. House Speaker Tillis, the Republican candidate, won 48.8 percent of the vote, enough to unseat Hagan, who won 47.3 percent. In state legislative races, Republicans suffered a net loss of two seats, not enough to threaten their solid majority. (They held onto the Senate seat encompassing Gates County, where Martell Jordan had registered voters.) Activists did take comfort in knocking off several Republicans in Moral Monday strongholds, including state Representative Timothy Moffitt of Asheville, a favorite to succeed Tillis as Speaker.
In retrospect, that the Republicans fared well here, at a time when the entire country was tilting right, should have come as no surprise. GOP voters generally out-flock Democrats during off years, though a comparison of the 2014 and 2010 North Carolina elections shows a slight uptick in African American and Democratic turnout relative to other groups. The state’s Democratic Party has been in disarray for years. And the voting-law overhaul seems to have had its intended effect: Democracy North Carolina, an electoral watchdog group with ties to the Moral Monday movement, analyzed 500 poll-monitor reports and concluded that the restrictions—as well as poor preparation for the new law—likely kept between 30,000 and 50,000 people from voting. Tillis’s margin of victory was 45,600 votes.
Then again, the direction of the Hagan campaign was light years from that of Moral Monday. The senator’s strategy was to woo swing voters by distancing herself from President Obama. She never kindled any excitement within the Democratic base, as Woodby noticed while canvassing in the mountains. “When we were talking to people, the thing that kept coming back was, ‘Why should we support her? She doesn’t believe in these issues either.’”
Barber doesn’t see November’s outcome as a permanent setback. “Squeaking out a 1.6-percent victory when you had all the voter suppression, total control of state government, and millions and millions of money—if the best you can do is less than 50 percent, that does not discourage our movement,” he says. “It actually says to us, if we keep building, we’re going to turn the tide in a major way.”
Barber has demographics on his side: While the African American and Latino share of the electorate has been growing, the white working class is shrinking. According to census data, whites who didn’t graduate college—the group that supported Tillis the most—made up 40 percent of North Carolina’s adult population (25 and older) in 2013, compared to 50 percent in 2000. Tillis’s victory was far narrower than the GOP Senate victories in Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Louisiana.
For now, Moral Monday’s impact is chiefly felt outside electoral politics. There’s evidence that its politics of moral witness have helped produce small policy shifts: Teachers won a pay increase last year, and some Republicans, including Governor McCrory, are retreating from their hard line against Medicaid expansion.
“Social movements, paradoxically—their greatest influence over candidates and elected officials is when they care least about them,” says Patrick Barrett of the University of Wisconsin. The New Deal, the Great Society, and the creation of Nixon-era regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency, he says, all reflected “social disruption” by grassroots movements rather than the strategic compromises of electoral campaigns.
North Carolina has not seen this level of disruption—at least not yet. “The Moral Monday protest is still in the tradition of the polite protest, where the prospect of things getting out of control is not really there,” says sociologist Andrews. A charismatic leader like Barber can inspire, as Martin Luther King Jr. did, by convening large gatherings in symbolically important places. But one of the greatest jolts of the civil rights era came from the student sit-ins that started in Greensboro and swept through the South in 1960, channeling youthful energy into something electrifying. The challenge for today’s movement will be finding 21st-century strategies that work as well as the lunch-counter takeovers did a half-century ago.
The movement will also need to scale up. “If there’s going to be a real turn in North Carolina politics, and if you’re going to realize the vision of this Moral Monday movement, there clearly needs to be an investment in the infrastructure that can channel that energy into real power on the ground,” says Chris Kromm, a 2013 arrestee and executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies, a nonprofit that supports grassroots organizing. “That takes organizers. It takes sophisticated plans about targeting people,” which seemed lacking during Moral Freedom Summer.
If a more disruptive, and better funded, movement can find its legs in North Carolina, it will derive strength from the unusual degree to which activists here have embraced one another’s causes. “When I first started, I was so simpleminded,” says Crystal Price, the fast-food worker. “I started off with labor rights. Going to Moral Mondays and listening to other people, they’d stand up for voting rights. OK, I’m a voter. Then the teachers, they stood up. Well, I have children. They go to school. Then the health-care workers stood up for their rights. Well, my kids go to doctors. I need health care. I’m going to stand up for you guys too.”
“Everything involves me,” she says. “I live in America. I’m a human being. Everything is my personal issue.”