If the scene looks familiar, well, it is.
A minister leading the way as a multi-hued crowd of demonstrators speaks of justice and equality, even while being peacefully led away by police. Speeches laced with words of scripture on caring for “the least of these.” A governor who calls a growing numbers of protesters “outsiders.”
It’s the South, in 2013, not 1963. But surprisingly to some, it’s North Carolina, long hailed as a moderate to progressive Southern state that is now making national headlines for Moral Mondays, named that by those who object to a stream of conservative proposals put forth by a Republican-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. Pat McCrory.
The Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, doesn’t put himself in the place of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; but he does set his cause in the tradition of King and the civil-rights movement. It’s a heartfelt comparison, and it’s smart, especially when some folks on the other side fall so predictably into a script written 50 or more years ago.
In 1963, it was the right to vote; in 2013, it’s a series of photo voter-ID proposals that might shorten early voting, impose a tax penalty on parents whose children register where they attend college and institute other restrictions in what has been one of the nation’s most voter friendly states. Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national civil-rights group that is assisting North Carolina organizers on legal analysis and communications, said she believed Republican super-majorities in the state House and Senate were elected because of redistricting that packed voters of color together and “close to obscene” amounts of money spent on campaigns. If the voting measures were enacted, they would be “cemented into place forever,” she said.
Other contested proposals and laws in various stages of development and implementation by the governor and General Assembly include the decision to reject federal funds to expand Medicaid, even while “Obamacare” opponents such as Florida’s Rick Scott, Ohio’s John Kasich and Arizona’s Jan Brewer have gone after them, the reduction of state unemployment benefits, moves to cut funding from public education and provide vouchers for private schools, and a tax overhaul that, in one plan, would lower personal and corporate income tax rates while making more everyday goods and services subject to a sales tax.
The recent repeal of North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, which allows death-row inmates to appeal their sentences and have them converted to life in prison without parole if they can prove racial bias in their cases, earned a disapproving editorial in The New York Times titled “Racial Injustice in North Carolina.”
“I won by over 10 points,” McCrory, elected last year, told me on Friday during the 2013 state convention of the North Carolina Republican Party. He was explaining why he believes he has the support to do as he promised and sign the Racial Justice Act repeal and voter-ID legislation when they land on his desk. The convention was a triumphant gathering with star speakers and optimism about the future of the North Carolina GOP. “We’re focusing on what the people sent us to focus on,” he said, in a state with “the fifth highest unemployment rate in the country.” He said he’s trying to change what doesn’t work “and have different, more positive results,” and bristled at the weekly protesters’ suggestion “that one group is moral and the other group is immoral.” He described himself as a governor committed to efficiency that would benefit all.
But McCrory didn’t help his cause when he later told convention goers, “Outsiders are coming in and they’re going to try to do to us what they did to Scott Walker in Wisconsin,” according to the Associated Press, echoing the “outside agitators” language so many Southern governors of the past – convinced that their own citizens were satisfied with the status quo — used to dismiss dissent. Now demonstrators are advertising their North Carolina roots, and, according to WRAL.com, police records indicate 98 percent of those arrested during the Monday protests at the General Assembly were from North Carolina.
Barber on Friday told me that the action in North Carolina goes beyond party and politics, toward a “moral vision.” Isaiah 10, “woe to those who make unjust laws,” got a mention, as well as passages from Psalms and Matthew: “The scriptures of our major faiths, it has to do with love, addressing issues of systemic poverty, justice, mercy, caring for your neighbor.”
Bishops of several denominations in North Carolina have shared the concerns of protesters, and a group of rabbis on Monday issued a statement, as individuals, that said, as reported in the Charlotte Observer: “Many of us have previously attempted to reach out to Assembly leaders for dialogue, and we have been ignored. … We therefore endorse the use of nonviolent civil disobedience to draw attention to the reckless and heartless policies currently passing into law in Raleigh.”
Clergy were reportedly among the nearly 60 arrested this week, joining the teachers, doctors and wheelchair-bound who have in past weeks been detained by the General Assembly police. On Monday, those handcuffed included a religion reporter, a friend and former Observer colleague, Tim Funk, who was covering the event in Raleigh. Since late April, more than 350 have been arrested in demonstrations that have drawn thousands of supporters.
Whether or not you agree with their actions, the words of the clergy sound considerably more inspiring than those of GOP state Sen. Thom Goolsby, who in a Friday op-ed in the Chatham Journal, said, “Between the screaming, foot stomping and disjointed speeches, it appeared more like ‘Moron Monday,’” from the “Loony Left.” He described the “several hundred people” as “mostly white, angry, aged former hippies.”
Goolsby wrote: “The circus came to the State Capitol this week, complete with clowns, a carnival barker and a sideshow. The ‘Reverend’ Barber was decked out like a prelate of the Church of Rome (no insult is meant to Catholics), complete with stole and cassock. All he was missing was a miter and the ensemble would have been complete.” (By the way, Barber — a pastor, professor and author — earned his Master of Divinity from the Duke Divinity School and his doctoral degree from Drew University.)
Meanwhile, “Witness Wednesday” this week is set to join “Moral Monday,” Barber told me, with a June 12 commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil-rights activist Medgar Evers, and honors for civil-rights martyrs of every race.
Any connection between then and now is completely intentional.
Before any Republican legislator starts making jokes, or thinking of what insulting words rhyme with “witness” for another op-ed, it might be time to talk with the dissenters or at least study some history. Despite disagreement on message, goals or how best to express both, mocking clergy members and your state’s citizens joining together in a cause all believe in might not be the image you want for North Carolina or yourself.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3