The Man Behind Moral Mondays

Jenny Warburg

Since they began in April, weekly “Moral Monday” protests at the North Carolina General Assembly have swelled into a movement gaining national attention. Led by the state’s charismatic NAACP president, the Reverend Doctor William Barber, progressives from across the state have come to denounce a flood of regressive legislation emanating from the Republican legislature—and in some cases, to perform acts of civil disobedience. Last Monday, in the largest Moral Monday yet, 1,400 protested and more than 80 were arrested inside the Legislative Building. In all, more than 400 have been arrested so far. Barber himself has been arrested twice at the General Assembly.

Moral Monday began as a way to call attention—both in the state and nationally— to what Barber calls a “mean-spirited quadruple attack” on the most vulnerable. This year, Republicans lawmakers have slashed unemployment benefits, raised taxes for poor and working families, rejected federal funds for Medicaid expansion, and put public schools on the chopping block along with progressive voting laws.

Long one of the South’s more moderate states, North Carolina’s rapidly diversifying population helped deliver it to Barack Obama in 2008. But two years later, fueled by the rise of the Tea Party and a spending spree by mega-conservative donor Art Pope (an ally of the Koch brothers), Republicans won majorities in the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction. Then, aided by new district maps that blunted the impact of minority votes, they won supermajorities and the governor’s office in 2012 and moved quickly to enact a right-wing agenda.

Barber, an evangelical preacher who comes out of the social gospel tradition, spoke to the Prospect from the office of fellow activist and religious scholar the Reverend Doctor Nancy Petty, the openly gay pastor of Raleigh’s Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. He describes how Moral Mondays emerged, what the protesters want, and how they intend to transform politics in one of the most hotly contested states in the nation.

How did the Moral Monday protests come about?  

First of all, it’s not a spontaneous action. Nancy and I and others have been working for seven years now building what we call the Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s Coalition, formed in 2006 with 16 organizations. We recognized that many of the same political forces that are against, say, gender rights, are often also against education equality, environmental justice, and policies that help the poor. And so we said that we needed in North Carolina—and we said this is when Democrats were in office—to have a new form of fusion politics if we were going to really address the South.

What do you want for North Carolina? What has your coalition been able to accomplish?

We’ve been pushing this moral agenda, this positive agenda rooted in constitutional values, even before the Republicans took over. We’ve talked about the need to have an anti-racism, anti-poverty, anti-war agenda. An anti-discrimination and pro-human rights agenda. And we were successful. That’s why North Carolina got same-day registration and early voting and Sunday voting and opened up the most progressive [voting] laws in the South that actually produced Obama.

Now, we didn’t tell people to vote for Obama—we produced a policy climate, a voting rights climate. That’s how we got the Racial Justice Act of 2009 [which prohibits racial bias in seeking or imposing the death penalty] passed. It wasn’t just Democrats—we had a broad coalition to push it. That’s how we were able to push more money for public education. That’s how we were able to fight when the same-sex marriage argument started.

How did Obama’s victory in 2008 affect the state’s political climate?

Immediately after that election, we saw an onslaught from ultra-conservatives. It started with LaRoque v. Holder, down in Kinston, where a case was filed against Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1964. We beat them back. Then they attempted to do voter ID. We had enough power in our coalition made up people of faith, Latinos, blacks, whites, and labor—a full tapestry of citizens—and gave Governor Perdue the backbone and strength to veto. [Bev Perdue, a Democrat, was the only Southern governor to veto voter ID. She left office this year.] But what she couldn’t veto was the redistricting plan.

In 2011, they got this guy named Tom Hofeller [national Republicans’ redistricting guru] and brought him down here. He went in a back room with his computer and the only information he had was race—he didn’t have economics, he didn’t have wages, he didn’t have gender—and he drew up a map. With Art Pope’s assistance and money—and with this legislature taking about $165,000 of our tax dollars—this ultra-conservative demographer drew the most racist redistricting lines we’ve seen since the 19th century, effectively gerrymandering and rigging the election.

So we had 2012. In North Carolina, more Democrats [won votes for] United States congressional seats than Republicans. But more Republicans ended up winning because of gerrymandering. And then, because they gerrymandered the state house and state senate, they were able to pick up a supermajority.

When the dust cleared, they had the governorship (we had a weak candidate) and President Obama lost by a slim margin, even though this was the highest percentage of blacks voting in the history of North Carolina (70) and the second-highest number of North Carolinians using early voting (60) and even though 68 percent of North Carolinians in general turned out.

Since the GOP’s takeover in 2012, what have lawmakers been doing to provoke such an outcry from citizens?

After the election, our coalition wrote a letter to the new governor, [Republican] Pat McCrory. We said, look, you have a chance to lead. We reminded him of the positive things Republicans had done in the past on rural economic development, pubic education and voting rights. That Lincoln Republicans—since you all claim to be the party of Lincoln—were for voting rights and for labor rights and educational equality. We said, you’ve got a tradition that’s not extreme, that’s not Tea Party, that’s not radical and constitutionally abusive. We met with him in his office. He said he was going to focus on jobs. He was going to make even members of his own party mad. That’s what he told us, face-to-face.

Well, instead, the first week in office, something happens that we deem immoral and extreme. In less than 20 minutes and without any allowing public presentations, even from doctors, the legislature voted to deny 500,000 poor people, disabled, black, and blind people Medicaid expansion.

The next week, they attacked the unemployed. In a state that has 1.6 million poor people (600,000 of these are children), the fifth highest rate of unemployment, and the 13th highest rate of poverty, they are taking away unemployment for 165,000 people.

Then they decided to take away Earned Income Tax Credit, which Ronald Reagan believed in as one of the best tools to eradicate poverty. This meant they raised taxes on 900,000 poor families who make less than $20,000 a year, so they could give 23 of the wealthiest families an estate tax credit. And the governor signed all this stuff. Then they announced other things they were going to do, like cut money to public education, get a voucher program and take public tax dollars and give them to private schools, cut teacher’s assistance, and take away public financing for [judicial elections] and fix it so judges can take private donations.

And then, on Thursday before Good Friday, they rolled out their bill on voting rights, which included a voter ID package that we don’t need because North Carolina has the best law already [to ensure electoral integrity]—signature attestation and a five-year felony if you lie. On the day we remember Jesus’ Last Supper before the Crucifixion, they rolled out a bill to crucify voting rights. They announced they were going to roll back early voting and Sunday voting, even though people died and were beaten to secure these rights during the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965. One of the legislators said, “The blacks have six other days. They don’t need a Sunday.”

How would you describe the philosophy behind Moral Mondays?

When we looked at the preponderance of this legislation that was passed and was being planned, we said, let’s look at the deep values of our constitution. We read where it says that in North Carolina, all political power should only be used for the good of the whole. We saw that our constitution of 1868, passed by blacks and whites, guaranteed equal protection and it guaranteed public education, both as a constitutional value and a moral value. Then we looked at the federal constitution and saw that the deep values in that are the common good—promoting the general welfare. The first word, before you even get to freedom and liberty, is the establishment of justice.

Then we went to the Bible. We saw that every major faith says that love and justice should be at the center of public policy. Isaiah 10 says, “Woe unto those who make unjust laws that rob the right of the poor.” And we said, wait a minute, when you look at these policies, it’s not only bad policy, but it’s immoral and extreme. And we said that we had to stand up as a coalition—not liberal vs. conservative (that’s too small, too limited, too tired), or Republican vs. Democrat. We had to have a moral challenge because these policies they were passing, in rapid-fire, were constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible, and economically insane.

Who is coming out to the protests?

Seventeen of us went [and were arrested] the first day—seven preachers, a woman in a wheelchair, and some others. The next week it was 30 [arrested], the next week 49 [arrested]. People started coming by the hundreds and now thousands. We’ve had over 500,000 hits on our social media in the last three to four weeks. We did a 26-stop tour and every place we went was a mixed audience: black, white, Latino, young, old, gay, straight, labor, faith, people coming out everywhere, which is really the other side of the story. In the South, for the NAACP to be leading a moral movement and you see crowds that are 40 percent white and 30 percent young? That’s what’s really concerning them, and why they’re calling us names.

When they see this diverse crowd coming together based on moral and constitutional values, it really pushes them into a kind of political hysteria.  They threw a line out there about protesters being “outsiders” to get the media to write about that rather than the issues.

What do the protesters hope to accomplish with acts of civil disobedience, given the Republican supermajority in the legislature?

The protests are only one part of our four-part strategy. We have a voter registration and voter education strategy, a social media strategy, and we have a legal strategy, because many of these things, not just the voting rules, are going to be challenged in the courts using our state and federal constitutions.

The first goal of civil disobedience strategy is to wake folk up, to shine the brightest moral and constitutional light on what is happening. Right now in North Carolina, everybody knows, whether they like it or not, what’s going on. People know it across the nation. So we accomplished that. Secondly, we always, in the civil rights community and the non-violent tradition, hold out the hope of repentance. That’s part of what it means to be a person of faith: You believe that people can be moved in deep places and change. So you put a cross before them, you put yourself, your body. You’re willing to sacrifice in hopes that somebody will say, “Wait a minute,” and change their ways.

I can tell you that a Republican just voted against the draconian budget they passed. Last week, a Republican said that the vouchers are just wrong. We’ve had Republicans come to our meetings and say, “I’m a Republican, but this is just wrong and I’m not like this.”

The final thing that civil disobedience does is it gives people a place to rally themselves, their energies and their spirits, from deep within. People need these events, these Moral Mondays. They’re going back to work like never before. It’s almost evangelistic and revivalist. Transformative.

Do you view the recent wave of aggressive energy coming from Southern conservatives as a sort of “Dixie’s Last stand,” or as evidence of a new shift rightward?

To have a moral and constitutional values approach, you have to have a deeply historical perspective. Remember 1868? That was the beginning of Reconstruction.  In just four years, by 1872, we saw major changes in terms of voting rights, education, and so on. Then you had the rise of the Redeemers, who saw the world around them changing so rapidly, and whose goal was to “redeem” America from fusion politics of blacks and whites moving together away from this segregated, slavery past. The Klan was formed in that same time frame. In 1898, in North Carolina, they had the Wilmington Riots [in which white Democratic insurrectionists overthrew the local government and destroyed black businesses and properties], and they turned back progress and reinstituted white supremacy.

But the problem with the flow of justice is that it doesn’t stop. In 1954 you have Brown v. Board of Education. You have Emmett Till killed in 1955. Then you have the beginning of the Second Reconstruction. You have preachers like King and others beginning to come up, saying, wait a minute, we’ve gotta go forward. In that Second Reconstruction you get all this change: Medicaid, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. America moves forward a little bit further. Then what happens? By the end of ’68, King is dead, Kennedy is dead, Malcolm is dead, Medgar is dead, Viola Liuzzo is dead. There’s a depression on the soul of those trying to move the nation forward. Nixon runs for office and [political strategist] Kevin Phillips comes up with the Southern strategy. They begin to use code words for race, to denounce entitlements like Medicaid. They said, we’ve got to stop black and brown and white people from working together and get this Second Reconstruction shut down.

Then you get the election of President Obama. But it’s not just the president. You get a break from the so-called “solid South.” In Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina, electorates come out that don’t look anything like the South has ever seen. And that’s a signal that we are in the beginning of the Third Reconstruction.

So the pushback of the ultraconservatives is not because they are winning, but because of the changing demographics of the nation and the South and people working together. They know that a new and broad community and electorate are coming forth, a new form of fusion politics that they can’t stop. They’re trying to delay it. But they can’t stop it. This is almost like a last ditch-effort to hold on to their nightmarish, homogeneous vision of the past, because they are afraid of this heterogeneous future that’s being ushered in. They know that their time is limited. They know that a narrow-minded agenda is not going to work much longer, even down here in the South, which they’ve always thought they count on.

What’s next for the Moral Monday movement?

Moral Mondays will continue. We just delivered a letter to the governor and the speaker saying, you’ve got the power to stop this. Just reconsider your attacks on Medicaid, voting rights, the unemployed, and the poor. If they don’t, then we will probably escalate in some ways—I’m not going to say how—because what they’re not going to do is live in peace while they hurt so many people and destroy so many lives. We’re going to make sure that the contrast is so clear between meanness and immorality and extreme politics and the politics of love and justice and compassion, that when 2014 comes, the people will be able to make a decision.

Love and justice have never lost. Been crucified and beat up, but we’re on the right side of history. When you push people down, they’re going to spread out and come up. It would seem that these folk would learn that, but when you’re blinded by extremism and power and greed, you can’t see the callousness of your actions.

The worst kind of abuse is the abuse of power. But if the Biblical story is about anything, it’s that Goliath only has a day. The Pharaoh only has a limited time. The non-violent and the people of deep faith always transform history. And we’ll do it again, right here in North Carolina.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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