Today is the first Monday in thirteen weeks without an NAACP led Moral Monday rally outside the Capitol in Raleigh. But the protests aren’t over. Rev. William Barber, leader of the North Carolina NAACP, says he’s taking Moral Monday on the road, all throughout the state. The road trip starts today in Asheville.
The coalition that Rev. Barber has built over the last few months is entering a new phase, and will be tested. Can it last? And can it win elections?
Barber's oratory may be seen as the driving force in his this coalition's success, but his focus on the visual may be what’s really made Moral Mondays tick, and what might keep it alive. You can hear his gift for the optics of organizing on display at the final Moral Monday protests in Raleigh.
As protesters marched with Barber in the lead last Monday, he took care to curate the makeup of the first row, directing clergy in view of the camera to represent the diversity of his movement.
“We need all clergy that were on the stage up front," he bellowed, as assistants worked to fill the line. "And we need diversity. All Clergy. All Clergy. Part that water. Ten across. The front line needs to be very diverse.”
The visual is just as important as the message. And Barber, as well as the crowd, almost marveled at all of their differences that day. You could hear it in his speech to the crowd.
“Educators fighting with the unions. And unions fighting with civil rights," Barber preached, as the crowd went wild. "People of faith fighting with the children. Environmentalists coming together with the health workers. Doctors standing on the side of the sick. Millionaires standing with the unemployed. Straight folks standing with gay folks. People of faith standing with people wrestling with faith. Look at what the Lord has done!”
William Chafe of Duke University says one pivotal move by Barber helped allow this coalition to form.
“Well I think the most critical moment in generating that coalition was his endorsement of gay rights," remarked Chafe, who teaches history and social change. He’s been arrested himself in Moral Monday protests. Chafe says Barber’s endorsement of marriage equality – as a Black minister - in the run up to the Amendment One vote last year broadened his base substantially.
“That was a very pivotal issue which was not without contention. A significant number of Black clergy opposed to that. His getting up front and doing what he did, made it possible for a lot of other doors to open.”
Barber even testified in front of the National NAACP on the issue, and helped them endorse marriage equality. He says some of the first people at Moral Monday were LGBT activist groups who were there in part because they wanted to prove that they could support more than one issue.
And more than one issue it has become. Everything from stand your ground laws, to Voter ID, to unemployment benefits, and abortion rights, and teacher pay and unions have come up at Moral Monday. It’s a true cornucopia of progressive politics.
For Barber, this is how it should be thinks that’s a good thing. He says any coalition that makes you comfortable is too small. And, he's found that the opponent of all those interests is the same.
“We said to people fighting for education -- look at who’s fighting you. Environmentalists, who’s fighting you?" asked Barber. "Labor, who’s fighting you. People standing for voting rights, who’s fighting you. Voting rights. We found out that they were the same person. So why are we not together? "Why are we in silos? The same people who are anti LGBT are anti voting rights, almost identically. The same people who are anti immigration are also anti public education."
With that realization, Barber formed what he calls the Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s coalition or HK on J for short. It could be considered the prototype for Moral Monday, in bringing so many diverse constituencies together.
Barber began HK on J soon after he became President of the North Carolina NAACP in 2006. It was a major shakeup of the group, which before his leadership could have been thought of as just a legal advocacy organization.
The HK on J Coalition saw success in helping pass the Racial Justice Act and obtain same-day voting in North Carolina. But both of those have been overturned by Republicans, who control the Legislature and the governorship for the first time in more than a century.
Their conservative platform has become a singular target for the more than 150 activist groups involved in Moral Monday. They have lots of different grievances. And for some, that's confusing:
“It’s hard to know exactly from week to week what it is they’re upset about." says Dallas Woodhouse, state director of Americans for Prosperity North Carolina. "One week it’s about Voter ID. One week it’s abortion. One week it’s about union rights. They are basically a coalition of the aggrieved.”
Woodhouse also has a problem with Barber’s framing.
“We disagreed with the other side when they wanted to raise taxes a lot. And they did! But we didn’t run around calling them immoral when they did it. And I think to quote those things in that terms is to act as a false prophet.”
And Woodhouse feels some of the language Barber uses is inflammatory.
“Comparing voter ID to the death of Emmitt Till and Medgar Evers is ludicrous. And it’s insulting to the memories of those champions of the Civil Rights Movement.”
However that message has been interpreted, it's getting attention, as his Barber himself. The Reverend is a big, handsome man, almost made for a camera and microphone, in spite of his limitations. He has health limited movement in his neck and walks slowly, with a cane. But people are drawn to him.
Barber says since he’s been President of the North Carolina NAACP, its membership has grown, by 10 thousand. He says that growth is due to the movement, not him.
But, protests and membership roles aren’t votes. And conservative strategist Carter Wrenn says Barber’s activism hasn’t swayed any elections yet:
“You’ve got this new figure, who’s come from nowhere to prominence in the Democrat party," Wrenn explains. "More prominent than any legislator, and any statewide official that's in the Democratic Party. That’s a phenomenon. But he’s also an old fashioned demagogue. And Demagogues tend to shoot up like meteors and burn out."
Wrenn points to recent progressive movements, like the one in Wisconsin, that failed to recall their governor, Scott Walker. He thinks their message, like Barber’s message, is good for activists but not so much for all voters.
And that’s really the question to be answered. How will Barber, Moral Monday, and the NAACP influence votes next election? So far, all of the more than 900 people arrested at the protests have pledged to register 50 people each to vote. And Barber says the NAACP will focus on challenging redistricting rulings and new voter ID laws in the coming months -- laws that could affect Democratic turnout.
Barber wants to use the momentum of Moral Mondays to grow the NAACP as well. He’s working on new NAACP chapters throughout the state. He says there’ll probably be one near Asheville that might be all-white, and another that will most likely be all-Latino. But, they’ll still be NAACP:
“The NAACP in its strength and power can never be seen as a black organization," Barber says. "It must be seen as an organization that addresses racism and inequality. But if you start with our history, it did not start with just Black people.”
In Raleigh last Monday, there were moments captured the fine line Barber is trying to walk: sacred and secular, minister and politician, Black and White, and Brown.
At the end of the Moral Monday rally last week, a gospel choir sang a traditional Church song. Instead of Jesus, the word other was substituted. At one point, you could hear one group of protesters yelling "This is what democracy looks like" as another group sang Negro spirituals. Rev. Barber had to admonish signholders to take down any with profanity. Mantaining the movement he's grown, keeping all the factions happy, and keeping the type of order he wants might take constant effort.
But so far, walking this line has been good for Barber, and the NAACP. However, Election Day is a long way off, and keeping the coalition together will be hard work.
Barber knows the battle is far from over, though. He says he's nowhere near stopping. For him, it seems, every day is Moral Monday.