by Joe Shea
February 28, 2014
A TIME TO BE BOLD
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- If 80,000 people show up for a march, and almost all the national press ignores it, did it really happen?
In the case of the people who filled the streets of Raleigh, N.C., on Feb. 8 under the banner of the Forward Together Moral Movement, it did happen, and it looks like the start of a new wave of activism.
Their agenda, according to the Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, is pretty simple - anti-racism, anti-poverty, pro-justice.
Under this umbrella fits issues such as better-funded and more equitable public education, universal health care, voting rights, poverty reduction, environmental protection, a fairer criminal justice system, and equality for women, immigrants, and the LGBT community.
Those are the bedrock issues of progressive politics. The difference is putting together a movement that unites people from every walk of life behind what Barber called "a society where people love one another and don't kick people when they're down."
The need for unity starts with the recognition, as Barber said in an interview with the progressive news site Common Dreams, that "the same people attacking voting rights are attacking labor rights are attacking health care," and that people need "to see ourselves as existing in society not as isolated selves but as part of the whole. ... Ultimately, we believe that there is a need for new discourse for how we talk about public policy that needs to be rooted in our moral values."
And, as many of the people involved like to say, "this is a movement, not a moment."
For nearly a year, crowds of people have been gathering on Mondays outside the state General Assembly building in Raleigh in a massive act of civil disobedience to protests the extreme policies of Republican Gov. Pat McGrory and the conservative-dominated legislature, which has cut funding for education and social welfare programs, rejected federal funds to expand Medicaid eligibility, and made changes to voting laws to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters.
Nearly 1,000 people have been arrested over the course of the "Moral Monday" protests. And while secular progressives might put off by the term "moral" and the biblical language, it is well and proper to frame issues of public policy as moral issues.
Most Americans, regardless of where they stand on the religious continuum, believe that feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, healing the sick, and protecting the vulnerable are worthy public policy goals.
But for too long, conservatives have had a monopoly on the definition of morality. They've been allowed to anoint themselves as the arbiters of "family values" and "respect for life," while at the same time promoting public policy that is the antithesis of morality.
The Moral Monday movement is a chance to rekindle the kind of multiracial, multi-issue social justice movement that hasn't been seen since the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. That's not a coincidence.
With the 50th anniversary coming up of "Freedom Summer," the historic 1964 campaign to register black voters in Mississippi, there are unmistakable echoes of that movement in the Moral Monday events.
Nearly five decades after passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, many of the battleground states in the Civil Rights Movement are trying to turn back the clock and make it harder for people to vote. That's why the Moral Monday people are calling for a massive voter registration drive in North Carolina this summer.
Even with the cold shoulder from the media, the Moral Monday message is spreading. There are "Truthful Tuesday" events in South Carolina. Georgia and Alabama are seeing similar actions. Even New York City is getting into the act.
But this is about more than holding rallies and engaging in civil disobedience. It's about organizing for the long haul, knocking on doors, and talking about change to one person at a time.
The moment is certainly right. The cause is more than just. The question is, can Americans move behold the same stale political arguments and seize a new future that's out there for taking?
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and has been an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.