Moral Mondays and the South’s New Liberal Gospel

The American Prospect/Jenny Warburg

By the time the North Carolina General Assembly ended its six-month session last Friday, the state’s first Republican supermajority had done everything in its power to transform the South’s most moderate state into a right-wing dystopia. No state in recent American history has been pushed further to an ideological extreme by a single legislative session. Among many other measures, Republican lawmakers rejected Medicaid expansion under Obamacare. They ended federal unemployment benefits for 170,000 North Carolinians and slashed them for everyone else. They severely cut public school funding (while making room for a voucher program that will send public dollars to private schools). They drastically decreased access to abortion. They quashed the earned income tax credit for working, low-income families. In the last days of the session, they passed an astonishingly far-reaching bill that makes voting harder in just about every way—from cutting down on early voting and creating a strict voter-ID requirement to ending same-day registration to prohibiting state-sponsored voter registration drives. On every conceivable front, the newly ascendant Republicans rapidly did—to borrow from the outraged New York Times editorial board—“grotesque damage” to the state. 

As they passed measure after measure, the Republican lawmakers had to work harder and harder to ignore the growing crowds of protesters—dozens, then hundreds, then thousands—who gathered outside the capitol for what they called "Moral Mondays." They weren’t your stereotypical left-wing agitators. These protesters sang old-time spirituals and held hands in prayer. In between speeches from political advocates and citizens being harmed by right-wing policies, they listened to ministers preach with a vehemence usually reserved for Sunday services. It was, despite the atrocities coming from the legislature, largely a politics of joy—and among the happiest were those who were voluntarily arrested at the end of each rally for refusing to disband. By the end of the legislative session, more than 900 people had been arrested. 

Republicans dismissed the protests as “Moron Mondays” and mislabeled the protesters, who were racially mixed and included plenty of young people, as “aging hippies.” The national press was little more accurate, blithely comparing Moral Mondays to the 2011 Wisconsin protests or the pro-choice crowds that gathered in Texas in June. But such comparisons miss the unique potential of Moral Mondays. North Carolina wasn’t “the next Wisconsin”; it was something far more profound—a promising new standard for liberal organizing in the South, albeit one with deep historical roots

Unlike most progressive political protests, the events in North Carolina did not arise in response to a particular outrage, but were years in the making—“a movement, not a moment,” in the words of the Reverend Doctor William Barber, Moral Mondays’ head protester and the state’s NAACP president. Attendance was diverse in terms of race, class, and geography. The protesters didn’t come to fight over a single issue; they came to decry the right-wing agenda writ large. What set it apart even more was the fact that Moral Mondays primarily used biblical rhetoric to advocate for an unabashedly liberal set of positions—not just on issues of economic and racial fairness, as Southern progressives have long done, but also on reproductive, gender, and gay rights.

The movement can’t point to a single legislative victory this session. Moral Mondays didn’t persuade lawmakers to change course on any major issue. But the protests effectively sounded a statewide alarm about the hyper-conservative agenda. By the end of the session, North Carolinians—many Republicans included—had turned decisively against the GOP lawmakers and Pat McCrory, the state’s first Republican governor in two decades. And with its multiracial appeal and righteous fervor, Moral Mondays swelled the ranks of engaged progressives in the state, building a movement designed to take advantage of demographic changes that are only beginning to transform the state along with the rest of the South. If the movement can continue to gather steam, it will become a model for liberal organizing across the region.  


The main public face of the Moral Mondays movement, William Barber, has found a way to fuse a 21st-century liberal agenda with a spiritual vernacular familiar to almost anyone who grew up in the former Confederacy. The result is an organizing philosophy that’s both authentically liberal and authentically Southern. “I'm a real conservative evangelic,” Barber boomed at the rally on July 15. “I believe what the book says … and the book says you can't love God on one hand and hate your brother on another.”

The American Prospect/Jenny Warburg

The American Prospect/Jenny Warburg

The American Prospect/Jenny Warburg

The right has hijacked religion and used it to divide for far too long, Barber says. He is determined to seize the moral high ground for liberals. “You can't simply say, ‘Help me God’ and then pass laws that are hurting people! That’s you!” Barber went on at the July 15 rally. “God doesn't help people hurt other people! God doesn't help people take the rights of other people, God doesn't help people mistreat the poor.” As usual, even the nonreligious protesters—and there were many of them—responded with hearty “amens.” 

By defining the debate largely in terms of power—framing it with the Biblical idea of challenging the rich and defending the poor and powerless—Moral Mondays not only emphasizes a progressive economic agenda but also opposes Republicans’ assaults on abortion rights and gay rights. Barber draws a bright distinction between what he considers “moral issues in the public square” and those “between you, God and your pastor.” In North Carolina, that’s helped bridge differences across religious groups and also between the faithful and those who don’t identify with organized religion. One Moral Monday focused specifically on women’s rights. Last year, Barber galvanized black ministers statewide to oppose an initiative that banned civil unions and gay marriage in the state. (It passed, nonetheless.) 

Barber’s approach inverts the religious-right rhetoric that has dominated, and warped, Southern politics in recent decades. Some liberals might be put off by Moral Mondays’ “good versus evil” approach. But not, for the most part, Southern liberals. Atheists, Jews, and Christians alike have long been accustomed to singing “This Little Light of Mine” while railing against right-wing politics; it comes straight from the civil-rights tradition of weaving together religion and advocacy. 

“This is a kind of Jewish-Baptist-Episcopalian-Methodist-Catholic church,” says Tim Tyson, historian, author, and professor at the Duke Divinity School. “It's not about dogma. It's about having a core commitment to human rights and human values.” 

Moral Monday participants might strike some observers as naïve do-gooders. But they come out of a long history of movement-building in the state—one that had, until Republicans rocked the state by taking over the historically Democratic legislature in 2010, achieved more than any progressive coalition in the South. Moral Mondays specifically grew out of a movement, founded by Barber in 2006, known as Historic Thousands on Jones Street, or HK on J. (The General Assembly is located on Raleigh’s Jones Street.) Like Moral Mondays, HK on J brought together more than 100 groups that ranged from the secular—NC AIDS Action Network, Clean Water for NC—to the sacred, including the First Baptist Church of Mufreesboro. The coalition has joined together groups that had been fighting separately for years on different issues.

When HK on J formed, Democrats had long run the state. The group’s 14-point agenda pushed for a broad range of progressive policies including a minimum-wage hike, improved mental health care, election reform, and environmental protections. Progressives won significant victories—none more important than expanding early voting and enacting “same-day registration,” which allowed voters to register and vote at the same time. Voter turnout, historically as low in North Carolina as in the rest of the South, increased dramatically as the state became a national model for fair elections. The HK on J coalition also fought successfully for the landmark Racial Justice Act, which allowed those sentenced to death to appeal their sentence and receive life without parole if the jury was racially biased in the sentencing process. 

This year, Republican lawmakers were hell-bent on rolling back almost every progressive achievement of the past decade, including the election reforms and the Racial Justice Act—and they did. That meant progressives had to find a new way to fight. “Normal lobbying, the normal grassroots advocacy, the normal channels of communication with our legislators were yielding nothing,” says Steve Schewel, a Durham City Council member who was arrested during one Moral Mondays protest. By the time Moral Mondays commenced in April, no one believed that the GOP agenda could be derailed this year; the goal was to raise awareness and mobilize a progressive movement, not convince the legislature to change its mind. As Tim Tyson says, “This was about turning on the light bright enough, making a noise loud enough, so that people say, ‘What's going on over there?” 

It worked. By the end of session, only 20 percent of North Carolinians approved of the legislature’s performance. The GOP’s marquee legislation—including its assaults on voting rights, reproductive rights, and unemployment benefits—was broadly unpopular. Governor McCrory’s approval ratings, as he signed one extreme bill into law after another, fell by 15 percent in just the last month. Most miraculously, perhaps, North Carolina progressives emerged from six months of historic setbacks with a measure of optimism about the state’s future—its long-term future, that is. 


Progressives in other Southern states can—and will—learn a lot from Moral Mondays. But North Carolina liberals did have the advantage of a long history of political organizing and coalition-building in their state—and the edge that comes from having, in recent memory, won significant victories. The civil-rights legacy runs deep. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a key civil-rights group, formed in Raleigh at historically black Shaw University; soon after, students at North Carolina A&T University began the first sit-in movement at a Woolworths lunch counter. North Carolina also has a legacy of white progressive leaders like Terry Sanford, who served as governor during the white Southern backlash of 1961 to 1965; while George Wallace was calling for “segregation forever,” Sanford's agenda, which historians refer to as “a second Reconstruction” called for, finally, the integration of blacks and whites. Now Barber, and the Moral Mondays movement, agitates for a “third Reconstruction.” Moral Mondays’ emphasis on long-term organizing has prompted comparisons to the Birmingham bus boycott, which sparked a movement that spread across the South and ultimately helped change the country.  

The American Prospect/Jenny Warburg

However, as Tyson points out, the Moral Mondays movement “is far more deeply interracial and multicultural than the civil-rights movement ever was, in its dreams on its best day.” Of those arrested through July 15, around 83 percent were white and 11 percent black. (The state’s population is 70 percent white and 20 percent black.) But attendance at the rallies was more diverse, more representative of the state, than those who get arrested. “It's easier to choose to get arrested if you're white, ‘cause it's always meant something more fearful and more risky for black folks to get arrested,” says Tyson, who was arrested along with his father, wife, and two children. It can be expensive too. Tyson estimates legal costs for the family may run as high as $5,000.

Moral Mondays cut across the racial lines that are so prominent in most Southern politics—including liberal and Democratic politics. That multiracial spirit will become increasingly important as the nonwhite population continues to grow. North Carolina, like much of the South, is undergoing a significant demographic shift. A report from the Institute for Southern Studies showed the number of registered Latino voters jumped by more than 100 percent since 2008. The state’s black population is also growing rapidly, part of a historic “remigration” of African Americans from the urban North. About one-third of the state’s registered voters are minorities, and that number is growing fast. In addition, young white North Carolinians—like young white people across the South—lean heavily Democratic. 

Moral Mondays’ diversity is measured in more than its multiracial nature; the rallies didn’t just attract urban liberals. Those arrested came from 60 of the state’s 100 counties. Professions varied. The biggest groups were professors, clergy, retirees and students, but there were also librarians, farmers, and teaching assistants. A yoga teacher, a postal carrier and a longshoreman were also among the civil disobeyers who volunteered to go to jail.  

Barber calls it “fusion politics”—bringing together different groups of people in the common interest. Most people don’t know the origin of the term; Barber is referring to a relatively forgotten period of North Carolina history, long before SNCC or sit-ins. From 1894 through 1896, white populists joined with black activists to create an interracial coalition that briefly dominated state politics. The coalition set up a framework for funding public schools and regulating corporations. But in 1898, a bloody coup in Wilmington, the main seat of “fusion” power in the state, killed hundreds of African Americans and deposed the city’s biracial government. White supremacist Democrats began to stop blacks from voting statewide, as they had in the rest of the South. The state wound up with new leadership and the beginning of the Jim Crow era. Now, advocates hope, the fusion coalition is back—and built to last much longer this time around. 


The Moral Mondays movement now faces its biggest challenge: keeping people energized. Organizers must find a way to maintain the momentum without Republicans lawmakers passing new outrageous laws, and without a major election anytime soon. If they can continue to build their ranks and beat the drum about the impact of the new GOP policies, however, Moral Mondays will become a powerful model for a progressive surge across the South. 

The coalition members will immediately begin challenging some of the most egregious new laws in court—in particular, the measures restricting voting rights. Voter-registration efforts, which progressives in North Carolina have already done notably well, will be ramped up. In 2014, there will be a new twist: With the new voter-ID requirement, the Moral Mondays movement will have to help thousands of North Carolinians attain the newly necessary identification; by the state’s own estimate, 316,000 registered voters currently lack it. 

Moral Mondays will also go local. After one last big rally at the state capitol today, organizers will fan out across the state, holding Monday rallies at city halls and in town squares. “The challenge is to translate the energy into local action,” says Bob Hall, head of Democracy North Carolina. “It’s really a challenge that the people attending Moral Mondays have to take on themselves. They have to recognize that they are the leaders back in their communities.”  

It will take perseverance and patience. Even with a Herculean organizing effort, there’s little chance that Moral Mondays will be able to return Democrats to power in North Carolina in 2014, or even in 2016. Because of the extremely partisan redistricting maps passed by Republicans in 2011, Democrats would have to win far more than 50 percent of the vote in order to retake the state house or senate. While Moral Mondays will work to decrease the Republican majorities, the movement’s more important work is to plant the seeds for long-term victories. 

“You don't judge your progress or success by immediacy,” Barber says. “You know if you stand long enough, love and justice always eventually win. That's part of faith. Moses always defeats Pharaoh. Jesus Christ always gets up out of the grave.”

The American Prospect/Jenny Warburg

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