‘Forward Together, Not One Step Back': Moral March Brings Out Tens of Thousands of Progressives


The bright sun finally broke through the clouds just as Saturday’s Moral March in Raleigh, North Carolina, was ending, drawing cheers from the tens of thousands of people who had been fired up by the Rev. William Barber’s keynote speech. “Even the universe says yes to justice!” Barber hollered joyfully from the stage in front of the state capitol. Stevie Wonder’s funk classic “Higher Ground” briefly turned Fayetteville Street into a giant dance party before the diverse, exuberant crowd began to disperse.

Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, had made “higher ground” a theme of his remarks, contrasting the movement’s public policy ideals with a litany of the “mighty low” policies that became law after a far-right takeover of state government in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

March organizers issued five demands for state government that reflect the broad concerns of its coalition—and the targets of right-wing leaders:

1. Secure pro-labor, anti-poverty policies that insure economic sustainability.
2. Provide well-funded, quality public education for all.
3. Promote health care for all, including affordable access, the expansion of Medicaid, women’s health, and environmental justice in every community.
4. Address the continuing disparities in the criminal justice system on the basis of race and class.
5. Defend and expand voting rights, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, LGBT rights, and the fundamental principle of equality under the law for all people.

MM - sign - Real North CaroliniansOver the past year, Barber has garnered national attention as “Moral Monday” protests grew, drawing thousands of people from across the state who objected to a wave of regressive legislation; more than 900 people were arrested for peacefully protesting.

Saturday’s march was actually a continuation of progressive organizing by HKonJ, the Historic Thousands on Jones Street (where the legislature meets), which has organized a rally every February since 2007. Last year’s merciless legislative assault on voting rights, public education, health care, and poor families gave progressive organizing a renewed urgency.

Multimillionaire Art Pope, a sort of home-grown Koch brother, had poured money into state elections. Far-right Republicans took the governorship and a supermajority in the state legislature. And in 2013 they made the most of it, gutting spending on education, rejecting the expansion of Medicaid to half a million poor people, and passing one the worst anti-voting laws in the country. They raised taxes on poor people by abolishing the Earned Income Tax Credit for almost a million families and used the savings to fund new tax breaks for a handful of the state’s richest residents. The governor violated a campaign pledge by signing a law that further restricts access to abortion.

North Carolina became, in short, the proving grounds for an untrammeled Tea Party approach to governance and what Barber calls “extreme, constitutionally inconsistent, morally indefensible, economically insane policies.”

Rev. Nancy Petty, who leads Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, said the first task of the Moral Mondays movement was to make sure that North Carolinians understood how much harm their legislators were doing. And that has energized a lot of people. As a speaker at a Friday night worship service said, it’s Bluto who makes Popeye reach for his spinach.

The crowd at Saturday’s march reflected the diversity of the coalition’s partner organizations and its commitment to the theme “Forward Together, Not One Step Back.” Visible groups included hundreds of doctors and other medical professionals in white coats, a sea of Planned Parenthood supporters in neon pink, Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters in bright red, and more than a thousand Unitarian Universalists in yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign MM sign - I standgear. The crowd, and the speakers, reflected a commitment to environmental and economic justice, to labor rights and immigrants’ rights, to public education. One hand-made sign summed up the spirit of the march: “I stand with so many groups here, I couldn’t pick just one.”

What holds the broad coalition together is a vision that is firmly grounded in moral language and an appeal for public policy that reflects the “better angels of our nature.” Justice, Barber says, is what love looks like in public.

Janet Colm, who has been CEO of Planned Parenthood of Central North Carolina for 30 years, said Moral Mondays organizing has been “transformational.” In a conversation a few days before the march, she said the onslaught of right-wing legislation had encouraged people to broaden their focus from any particular issue to the people being affected by the actions of those in power.

MM Planned P 1“The progressive movement in North Carolina is moving away from thinking this is about women’s rights, or unemployment, or Medicaid, and thinking about it as an attack on women, young people, people of color,” she said. “There’s a lot of power in that.” There may be disagreements on some organizational positions and nuances, she says, but “people know we are fighting for the same people.”

Barber makes the case by drawing on the language of scripture and hymns familiar to many people of faith, and also on the language and promise of the U.S. Constitution. “We stand together,” he said, “to lift up and defend the most sacred principles of our democracy.”

After the rally, Barber reflected on the response the movement has generated, saying, “There is a hunger for higher ground, there is a hunger for language that is not limited” to partisan divides, “a language that allows people to dig deeper into their humanity, to get beyond just the talking heads and pundits and to really ask the question, what are our deepest moral values that grow out of our faith?”

Indeed, a big part of the excitement generated by the Moral Mondays movement is the sense that it has succeeded in retaking moral high ground that has been claimed for too long by the religious right and its political allies. Rally speaker Manzor Cheema, who was representing Muslims for Social Justice, credited the movement “for taking the world ‘moral’ out of the right wing and giving it back to the progressive people.”

A strong interfaith presence is one feature of the Moral Mondays movement; another is the full inclusion of reproductive justice and women’s health care and the equality of LGBT people.

“That’s a journey,” said Rev. Petty, a lesbian who was a master of ceremonies at Saturday’s rally. Petty told me that she and Barber first worked together closely in 2010 when he contacted her after seeing an op-ed she had written challenging the school board’s effort to roll back desegregation policies. “From that moment, we joined hands, not as black and white, gay and straight, but as two faith leaders who saw something at stake in North Carolina, our state being a compassionate state, where people are treated equally, where diversity is respected and welcomed.”MM - pre march gather

They worked together on the education issue, she said, without ever talking about LGBT equality. And when Amendment One was put on the 2012 ballot to write a ban on marriage by same-sex couples into the Constitution, Barber was there as an advocate for equality. “When you stand in solidarity with someone on a justice issue,” Petty said, “when the next justice issue comes down, you stand with them. Because now you’re connected, and you’re connected on something bigger than you.” When you’re working on justice, she said, “you don’t get to pick and choose issues.”

Throughout the weekend, Barber repeated his belief that the movement must never stray from the fundamental constitutional principle of equal protection under the law—a principle that puts voting rights, LGBT equality, access to health care, and class and racial inequities in the justice system in the same moral frame.

Organizers say that Forward Together is “not a moment, but a movement,” and that the rally kicked off what will be a year of intensive grassroots organizing, litigation, nonviolent direct action, and voter empowerment and voter education.  In the days leading up to the march a group of youth leaders from around the country met to strategize for a new Freedom Summer, 50 years after the original, to mobilize young people from across the country to register voters in North Carolina and other states.

Barber insists that the Forward Together movement is not partisan; many Republicans and Independents joined Democrats in protesting the extreme policies put into law last year. He reminds critics that the Historic Thousands on Jones organizing began when Democrats were in charge, and cites examples of Republicans in the past who worked across the aisle to advance the common good.

Even though its leaders have a clear eye on the 2014 elections, the movement keeps principles, not politicians, in the forefront—literally. As the pre-march rally wrapped up and organizers were giving instructions on the logistics of the march itself, Barber invited clergy, leaders of partner organizations, and youth to come to the front. “Elected officials,” he instructed, “do not come to the front of the line … we don’t do that.”

Also not at the front of the line, and for the most part not on the speakers’ platform, were national figures. Barber is adamant that the change the country needs must come from state-based movements led by local people. The Grand Marshalls of the march were three women from North Carolina who are lead plaintiffs in the North Carolina NAACP’s voting rights suit against the state: Carolyn Coleman, an NAACP national board member; Mary Perry, who Barber said has registered 10,000 voters; and the 92-year old Rosanell Eaton, who led the crowd in chants of “Fed up, fired up!”

MM - sign - spanishSome national leaders did join Barber at a post-march press conference, where they pledged to support the movement without trying to impose leadership or agendas from Washington or elsewhere. Among those present were Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers, Penda Hair of the Advancement Project, George Gresham of 1199 SEIU, Peter Morales of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Geoffrey Black of the United Church of Christ. Several of them choked up talking about what is happening in North Carolina as a revival of the spirit and activism of the civil rights movement.

Movements happen, says Barber, from the bottom up. When I asked him about the national interest in Moral Mondays, Barber said it is wrong to think in terms of taking the movement national. The United States was changed from Selma and Montgomery, not from Washington, D.C., he says. Activists in other states are already adopting and adapting the model. “We didn’t have to tell Georgia to start Moral Mondays,” he said. “Gov. [Nathan] Deal did that” by denying people Medicaid and attacking voting rights. “They caught the spirit.”

“When people understand the intersectionality, the coordinated attacks against our most fundamental rights, people come together,” Barber said. “And when they see something working, then they join in.”

All photos via Peter Montgomery.

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  • edgery

    Saturday’s march was special not so much in the diversity present but in the unity and common purpose. I walked away with the message “higher ground” – we can take back the “moral” claim by our actions and intent

    • Junie3

      Moral, such as killing innocent children. Your morals are in the bottom of blood pile. Disgusting Commies.

      • Jennifer Starr

        Who’s killing children? No one’s talking about killing children.

        • Junie3

          LOL, got the commie crumb snatchers all riled up.

          • Jennifer Starr

            And what does that mean in English, precisely? You haven’t said one thing to disprove my statement that no one is ‘killing children’.

          • Junie3

            Is abortion not killing children? Oh, it’s just a clump of mass.

      • fiona64

        If you know of anyone killing children, please contact your local law enforcement agency.

      • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

        I see you brought your murderporn with you. How special.

      • goatini

        I think you wanted the Nancy Grace message board. This one is about tens of thousands of citizens standing up for the civil, human and Constitutional rights of US citizens, especially FEMALE US citizens.

      • expect_resistance

        Abortion is a moral and responsible choice.

      • CJ99

        If you see anyone killing kids call the cops. But I know you won’t as the disgust you engender is your own.

  • Joey Randolph

    There is NOTHING Moral about Abortion — the immoral, wanton, senseless and selfish killing of God’s precious babies gestating in utero.

    And BIG labor wants the Keystone XL Pipeline — build it!

    Speaking of Obamacare it’s jaw-dropping idiotic that Democrats, unable to create enough jobs for Americans, have turned instead to speaking about freeing millions of employed Americans from “Job Lock.” The CBO assured U.S. that WITH Obamacare we’ll enjoy 2,500,000 fewer full-time equivalent jobs by 2024 than without it. But hey, if this is such a great thing, why stop at 2,500,000? Let’s go for 5,000,000; maybe 10,000,000; how about 50,000,000?! HELL, we’re all Job Locked! Just give everyone free everything and we’ll all get free from Pelosi’s Dreaded Job Lock and take up basket-weaving, bird watching, finger painting, and poddy training.

    if you can’t do the time don’t the crime. Crime is colorless; Lady Justice is blindfolded.

    Madiba had it RIGHT: Obtain a Voter ID. Register to Vote. Show up with your ID and VOTE!

    • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

      You probably should not have an abortion.

      • CJ99

        Nor should he have kids. Subjecting even 1 member of the next generation to his insanity is waaaay beyond cruel.

    • HitlerWasNeverPregnant

      Protecting oneself from a pregnancy that can maim and kill is not selfish. Its self defense.

    • L-dan

      I agree wholeheartedly…universal, single payer health care to free everyone from relying upon an employer for their health care! Great idea! How many entrepreneurs might forge their own paths when no longer worried that one illness could send them and their families and their nascent businesses into bankruptcy?

      Too bad you couldn’t keep that momentum going with the rest of your nonsense. I’ll believe Lady Justice is actually blind when rich kids don’t get off with judgements of ‘affluenza’. Ugh.

      • Junie3

        What in life is free? You blathering idiots need to work a while, pay taxes then look at “Free” health care from the side of “controlling your life”, that is what the commies, marxists want to do. Work or don’t eat, it’s in your bible.

        • L-dan

          Yeah, England is so Communist, and most of Europe, and Canada, and…pretty much every other 1st world nation except us. And I have no bible, for the record.

          Since we consider ourselves civilized, we already have laws that say emergent conditions have to be treated by the ER, since tossing dying people on the street to die is pretty messed up for a civilized society. So we already end up with everyone paying for that care when it’s given to someone unable to pay. And this is a far more expensive way of treating people than dealing with conditions before they become emergencies.

          Tying health care to work doesn’t even cover everyone who works. Wal Mart doesn’t offer health care most of their workers can afford to be on, for example. Not sure why it’s somehow noble to expect a country to run smoothly when the vast majority of people are always one health care crises away from bankruptcy.

          • expect_resistance

            Totally agree. Tying health care to work doesn’t work.

        • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

          “What in life is free?”

          ……………

          ::: sings :::

          The moon belongs to everyone
          The best things in life are free
          The stars belong to everyone
          They gleam there for you and me

          The flowers in spring
          The robins that sing
          The sunbeams that shine
          They’re yours, they’re mine

          And love can come to everyone
          The best things in life are free

          Honey, the moon belongs to everyone
          You know the best things in life are free
          And the stars, they belong to everyone
          They’re shining up there for you and for me

          The flowers in spring
          The robins that sing
          The sunbeams that shine
          They’re yours, they’re mine

          And love can come to everyone
          The best things in life are free
          The best things in life are free

          [ These are The Best Things In Life Are Free Lyrics on http://www.lyricsmania.com/ ]

        • goatini

          Some of us pay more in taxes than you will ever make in a year.

        • Dez

          Nice racism. This is why people of color will never vote for republicans as long as they let racists like you in the party.

        • expect_resistance

          Sorry we can’t help you with your low level of reading comprehension. L-dan said, “free everyone…..” As in “Freeing someone from being oppressed, Freeing them from want.” Not as in “Free” healthcare.

        • CJ99

          next time you scream “blathering idiots” make sure your looking in the mirror.

          and just so you know it’s not “my bible” I don’t read bigoted badly written fantasy novels.

        • fiona64

          Congratulations! You proved my point; you have no idea what communism or Marxism are (and why they’re not synonymous). As for your remark about the Bible, i don’t seem to recall Rabbi Yeshua asking anyone about their socioeconomic status before he helped them … although he did say that his followers should give up every one of their personal possessions to share equally with the group (Matthew 19:21). Sounds pretty damned socialist to me …

        • ansuz

          “Work or don’t eat, it’s in your bible.”
          I am pretty sure that Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style says no such thing.
          (Hint: If you are using the word ‘bible’ to refer to the book/set of books that Christians claim their religion is based on, you ought to appropriately capitalize and format the word as a book’s title. The word ‘bible’ has entered the lexicon to refer to a book — any book — of guiding principles.)

          Also, I’d like to say, as a Canadian taxpayer, that I love Canada’s healthcare system.

      • expect_resistance

        Sorry wrong place for the post. Mods can you delete?

    • fiona64

      There is nothing moral about an anti-choice man waving his big paw in the air and pronouncing on what medical and financial burdens some woman he’s never even met should be forced to assume.

    • Jennifer Starr

      Yet another pointless rant that doesn’t actually say much of anything.

      • CJ99

        Their ilk are why I have no faith left in humanity. Absolutely none at all.

  • Christina

    There’s also nothing moral about Catholic saints who advocate prostitution or a mans ” lust will explode”. How many women throughout history have been selfishly used for men’s sexual pleasure and abused by being denied a normal life? Only the unborn matter . Pardon me if there are a lot of us who know there are toe parts to the equation of a pregnancy. Quit trying to hold women to a higher standard than men . It’s hypocritical.

  • Christina

    I’m grateful to see people standing up fur what is right together from all different backgrounds. I haven’t seen the phrase used ” for the common good ” for too long. Great for North Carolina! Where next?

    • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

      Pennsylvania, I hope. We have a crappy Governor to get rid of.

  • UnaffiliatedVoter

    ALL, Evil people with NO understanding of Americanism and free enterprise…it’s the gimme gimme gimme crowd of idiots on parade once again…may they STRIVE to be SMARTER than the criminal democrackkks WANT them to BE! (remember, your government screwls indoctrinated these people this way!)

    • Jennifer Starr

      Screwls?

      • fiona64

        It’s always nice to see the TeaPartiers on parade, isn’t it? Demonstrating their intellectual capacity all over the place …

      • CJ99

        Apparantly thats what the lunatic fringe now calls their own sockpuppets.

  • Junie3

    The wolves in sheeps clothing and the minions that are willing to give up their soul for this communist nonsense. God help them.

    • Dez

      So you must be part of the Christian Taliban that wants to enforce their version of sharia law on this country. LOL. Yeah try living in those theocracies for awhile and see how great your quality of life is.

    • CJ99

      Only the religious reich would condemn the freedoms that America is supposed to be about as “communisim” . You “Junie3″ truly are a piece of filth.

    • fiona64

      I’m guessing you have no idea what communism is …

  • luckystrike57

    William Barber, Sean Hannity is waiting for you to come on his program. “Are you afraid?”

    • http://plumstchili.blogspot.com/ Plum Dumpling

      Sean Hannity is dumb as a box of gohmerts.

  • expect_resistance

    Wow, how inspirational and courageous!