The kids were sitting “crisscross apple sauce” and waiting for story time to begin. Almost a thousand people gathered in Durham, North Carolina to celebrate Dr. King’s birthday -- a sea of black, brown, and white faces looking expectantly at the stage. And when Ms. Virginia Williams stepped up to speak, she took all of us -- children, college students, parents, and grandparents alike -- back in time with her to Durham in the hot summer of 1957 when she and six other young people staged a sit-in at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor. It was an effort that led to the first court case testing the legality of segregation laws, and paved the way for the sit-ins of the 1960s that were critical to the Civil Rights Movement.
I listened with deep gratitude as Ms. Williams explained to the children in a way that they could understand exactly what civil disobedience means and what it was like for her as a young woman to make history standing up for what she knew was right.
Never would I have imagined that less than six months later North Carolina would again see a summer of civil disobedience and protest. Or that I would be standing alongside my children and many other families, cheering, as our fellow North Carolinians marched into the General Assembly to be arrested standing up for justice in our state. Or that our state would find itself both a national joke and a national inspiration all at once.
It has been a hard few months for North Carolina. We’ve seen Medicaid expansion which would have provided health care for 500,000 low income North Carolinians rejected. At a time when we have the fifth-highest unemployment rate in the nation, we’ve seen unemployment benefits slashed and 170,000 of our neighbors lose their long-term federal unemployment benefits. We’ve seen the repeal of the Racial Justice Act, the weakening of gun laws, and the elimination of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helped lift 900,000 struggling working families out of poverty.
We saw the passage of a budget with devastating cuts to education, and a plan that shifts the tax burden onto the bottom 80% of taxpayers while giving the wealthy and corporations a tax break. And, in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act, we saw our lawmakers move to eliminate Same Day Voter Registration, cut back on early voting, and pass of one of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws, which will disproportionately disenfranchise people of color, women, seniors, and low-income individuals.
It’s enough to make you lose hope.
Or it would be were it not for the birth of a new movement in North Carolina and of a new type of “fusion” politics bringing people together across racial lines through shared political interests. Led by Rev. William Barber and the NC NAACP, the Forward Together Movement brought thousands of North Carolinians of all backgrounds together at the General Assembly every Monday for 13 weeks to sing, to protest, to pray, and for over 900 North Carolinians to engage in acts of civil disobedience. This resulted in their arrests, but drew attention to what was happening in the state.
Even now as lawmakers have gone home, the movement continues to grow, spilling out of the capitol and drawing thousands to "Moral Mondays" from the mountains to the coast.
This week on August 28th, rallies are being held in thirteen cities across the state to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s March on Washington, to educate the public on what happened in North Carolina this year, and to call on Members of Congress to renew Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act.
As hard as it is to see what has been happening to our state, it’s also a powerful time to be in North Carolina. A new politics is emerging and growing here, and it’s something beautiful to witness and be a part of.
As we say at Moral Mondays, “Forward together, not one step back!”