Until recently, I worked for a policy organization that brought attention to issues affecting low-income people in North Carolina. When the state legislative session began in January, one of the big issues the organization’s lobbyists worked on was unemployment insurance.
They went to legislature armed with facts – that cutting unemployment insurance benefits would hurt families and undermine the state’s lackluster economic recovery.
They presented evidence that rejecting Medicaid expansion would not only mean leaving 500,000 people without health coverage but would also cause tremendous harm to the state’s health care system. Legislative leaders didn’t listen.
When they pointed out that enacting the voter ID bill would disenfranchise thousands of people – primarily those who are poor and/or elderly – and would cost the state millions, legislative leaders didn’t listen.
And when they argued that research shows North Carolina schools need more teachers, not fewer, and that the state’s children need greater access to high-quality pre-kindergarten, not less, legislative leaders didn’t listen.
What do you do when the people in power don’t listen? You take to the streets.
That’s what spawned the Moral Monday movement. These peaceful protests at the Legislative Building in Raleigh began on April 29, and each Monday since (expect for Memorial Day), hundreds of people have gathered to chant and sing, and dozens have willingly been arrested.
Led by Rev. Dr. William Barber of the North Carolina NAACP, Moral Mondays have attracted people from all walks of life. Organizers are planning a mass rally on Monday, June 3, in hopes of bringing thousands of people to Jones Street to protest the legislature’s actions.
For those who fought during the Civil Rights era, the sense of history repeating itself is palpable.
“I didn’t know I was going to be 53 years old and fighting for Brown versus Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act of 1955,” said Dr. Tim Tyson, a history professor at Duke University. “Those are the things that we are fighting for now – voting rights for all, and we don’t want the schools resegregated. Because people paid too much. They’re trying to do away with early voting, outlawing Sunday voting. They’re really making it difficult for college students to vote. That’s an attack on our public civic culture. And if we lose that, it will be very difficult to change anything else.”
Rev. John Saxon, lead minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Raleigh, also brought a sense of history to the movement. “I went to the General Assembly last Monday because I grew up in Alabama in the 1950s and 1960s and saw with my own eyes how injustice and oppression masqueraded as law and order.”
Jillian Johnson, a web developer from Durham, was one of 49 people arrested as part of a Moral Monday protest on May 13. “For me, it’s really about people’s lives,” she said after she was released. “It’s about individuals in my community who are going to be worse off, who are going to have poorer health, who are going to have fewer resources, whose children are going to have a lower-quality education because of what they’re doing. So for me, I feel like this is a very personal situation.”
(You can hear many more protestors speak about why they were willing to be arrested on Rev. Barber’s YouTube page.)
Whether the Moral Monday protests – especially the big one next Monday – will influence legislative leaders, or if they will motivate North Carolinians to change the make-up of the legislature the next time they get a chance to, remains to be seen. But certainly, standing up against that which is unjust is the moral thing to do.