Moral Mondays

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The Moral Mondays movement, originated in North Carolina.

Origins

Moral Mondays grew out of a People’s Assembly movement known as Historical Thousands on Jones Street (HKOJ) that was formed in February 2007. The Black masses are the social anchor of the HKOJ, even though its composition and program is broader.

The Rev. William J. Barber II, North Carolina state president of the NAACP, along with others engaged in struggles for social and economic justice and human rights, mobilized to convene a People’s Assembly in February 2007 where a 14-point program was developed, and the HKOJ coalition was formed, which included the 120 branches of the N.C. NAACP and 150 community, labor and social justice organizations.

Rev. Barber had been active in struggles around education, voting rights and other issues, mainly in the city of Goldsboro, where he lives and pastors his church. In 2002, he came out in support of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union-UE Local 150, which was organizing at two of the city’s main employers of state mental health workers. He spoke on the Goldsboro City Hall steps, lifting up the right to organize and collective bargaining.

As a leader of the Goldsboro branch of the N.C. NAACP, who actively supported labor and other Black, working-class and poor people’s struggles, Rev. Barber stood out as an emerging statewide leader capable of changing the largely inactive character of the majority of the N.C. NAACP branches. In 2006, with the help of progressive ministers and allies who were registered NAACP members, he was elected N.C. state president of the NAACP.

The HKOJ began holding annual mobilizations to the N.C. General Assembly each February, declaring it the People’s House and calling on legislators to implement the People’s Assembly program. Rev. Barber’s leadership and the HKOJ mobilizations began to radicalize and transform many of the 120 N.C. NAACP branches, and a large and active youth wing was recruited.

The HKOJ and its demands on the General Assembly began when the Democrats held the majority in the state Legislature. A ruling by the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations, on a complaint filed by the UE-initiated International Worker Justice Campaign, found North Carolina was out of compliance with international conventions and treaties by denying public sector workers collective bargaining rights. Following the ruling, a bill was presented to the N.C. Legislature by an ally in the Democratic Party, calling for the repeal of the ban on collective bargaining rights for public sector workers.

Despite the Democratic Party having a majority, and that support for the bill was shown by organized labor and many community and social movement organizations, the bill never got out of a committee to make it to the floor for a vote by the General Assembly. It is clear to many in the Moral Mondays campaign that the Democratic Party is not in favor of empowering the working class against the forces of capital that largely dictate and shape the policies of the state.[1]

Beloved Community Center

Housed in a brick church on a residential corner in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Beloved Community Center is a living monument to the city’s role in civil and human rights struggles, from the early 1960s to the present. Pay it a visit and the people who run the place will point out their younger selves in the decades-old photos of rallies and voter-registration drives that cover the walls. They’ll recount a standoff between local black students and the police in 1969 that left a 20-year-old dead. They’ll tell you how they organized a citywide truth and reconciliation commission after members of the Klan gunned down five people in the Greensboro massacre of 1979. They’ll talk about why, nearly a decade ago, they supported black and Latino workers in the state who tried to unionize a pork-processing plant despite management’s effort to intimidate them with immigration raids. And they’ll look at you quizzically if you ask, as I did when I visited in May, why they joined the Moral Monday movement, which has upended North Carolina’s politics and dominated headlines for the past year.

“There wasn’t a joining,” says Joyce Johnson, a co-founder of the center. “There was a flow.”

Given the news coverage, it’s easy to think that the Moral Monday protests and Forward Together—the movement behind the Monday mobilizations—came out of nowhere. It’s easy to believe that more than 900 people were arrested while engaging in civil disobedience last spring and summer because the laws passed by North Carolina’s conservative legislature and signed by Republican Governor Pat McCrory were just too draconian for a state accustomed to a more moderate leadership. It’s easy to read the accounts of teachers outraged by attacks on tenure, or swing voters upset by McCrory’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, and think that the mobilization is under way because politics—aided by model legislation crafted by ALEC and funding from the Koch brothers—just got too ugly in the Tar Heel State.

Yet such assessments have it only half-right. Yes, in the last midterm election, Republicans won control of the State Legislature for the first time since the late nineteenth century. And yes, they proceeded to redraw district lines in a cynical effort to maintain the GOP’s lock on the Statehouse. Emboldened by their win, they’ve passed a voter-suppression law that threatens to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of people. They’ve passed what the spokesperson for a state Planned Parenthood affiliate describes as “an anti-abortion wish list” that restricts coverage for city and county employees and requires that clinics meet the standards of outpatient surgical centers—a change expected to force most clinics to close. The Legislature also gutted the state’s education budget and ended the earned-income tax credit. Those moves infuriated North Carolinians, and the protests have continued into the current summer legislative session, with sixty people arrested as of late June. But it’s also true that years of steady effort among the state’s organizers and advocates made it possible for this particular moment to become a movement.

Johnson’s husband, the Rev. Nelson Johnson, was a member of that first group of seventeen people arrested on April 29 2013, on the very first Moral Monday. “People see the great crowds on Mondays,” he says. “What they don’t see is all the work that came before that.”

The Johnsons are part of a coalition called HKonJ, which stands for Historic Thousands on Jones Street (where the state capital’s legislative buildings are located), and which laid the groundwork for Moral Mondays and the Forward Together movement. In December 2006, sixteen organizations—representing clergy, labor, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and racial justice—came together to form what the Rev. William Barber II, the head of the state NAACP and the movement’s most visible leader, called a “transformative fusion coalition.” Transformative fusion means that each organization came to the coalition with a deep commitment not just to advance their own political priorities, Barber explains, but to advance the various causes of the other coalition members as well. Together, the coalition members would review state policy from an anti-racist and anti-poverty perspective and come up with a fourteen-point agenda, as well as an action plan for achieving those goals. Asked how the organizations make decisions and set priorities collaboratively, Barber replies that the key is sharing a broader vision for the state’s future.

“It’s about fundamental change, not incremental change,” he tells me. “Victory on one issue does not mean you leave the coalition.”

In February 2007, the coalition turned out 3,500 people for a teach-in that merged its various constituencies. Labor, education and criminal justice groups had previously held individual lobby days, but HKonJ established its own annual day for North Carolinians to talk to their legislators about multiple issues—an approach that Barber calls “intersectional”—and challenge them as a united front. The coalition called itself a people’s assembly and proceeded to push the fourteen-point agenda at the state level, while those involved locally registered and educated voters.

Movement leaders are quick to point out that in 2007, Democrats controlled the governor’s mansion and the Legislature. Even then, HKonJ was active. It claims a role in establishing same-day voter registration in 2007 and passing a law in 2009 that commuted a death sentence to life in prison on account of racial bias in the criminal justice system. (Both wins have been reversed by the current Legislature and governor.) That the Forward Together movement’s architects have participated in the equal-opportunity shaming and cajoling of politicians lends credence to something Barber says often: “We’re not asking people to go left or right. We’re asking them to go deeper.” In other words, North Carolinians suffer as a result of legislative changes he calls extremist, and this suffering should worry everyone, regardless of political party. Barber says the movement is guided by a concern for what’s moral rather than by partisanship.

In the years since its inception, HKonJ has taken part in many of the state’s biggest political battles—and, some say, forced them to a tipping point. In 2010, when recently elected Wake County school board members tried to throw out a desegregation policy that had made the district one of the most integrated in the nation, HKonJ responded in Raleigh, making public education a focus of its efforts that year.

“We had to fight what was going on in Wake County because it had statewide and national implications,” Barber says. After months of organizing that included teach-ins and civil disobedience resulting in arrests, the school board members who’d been key proponents of reversing the policy lost their seats. Disagreement over how best to assign students continues to this day.

In 2012, in the face of a proposed ban on same-sex marriage called Amendment 1, HKonJ employed the language of civil rights, emphasizing that the law would deny equal protection under the law. The constitutional amendment was eventually adopted, but Barber claims that the coalition’s organizing helped narrow the margin from the 80 percent victory proponents had expected to a 60 percent win. Despite efforts on behalf of the initiative’s backers to get black clergy to support it from the pulpit, black voters in the state’s five largest cities rejected the measure.

In addition to its tradition of vigilance and response, HKonJ has an eight-year tradition of taking to the streets on a Saturday in February—with the date chosen for its proximity to the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln as well as the founding of the NAACP. So when 17,000 people showed up at the Statehouse early last year, the size of the crowd was noteworthy, but the fact that people turned out wasn’t. It was a show of defiance after the 2012 election that gave Republicans total control of the governor’s office and the Legislature. It was a surge in a movement that had been gathering steam for years. Two months later, the nonviolent civil disobedience for which Moral Mondays have become known would begin.[2]

Strategy

Moral Mondays have mobilized thousands to take away the moral high ground from the religious right — whose so-called “moral agenda” is racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and divisive — and try to appeal mainly to the white working class. Moral Mondays have injected a liberation theology, creating a popular social ministry, which is radicalizing many faith leaders as part of the fightback against the neofascists that not only have a base in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress, but also a social base in the white working class, and have been growing and mobilizing during the Obama administration.

The next step in the moral argument will be to challenge the capitalist system as Dr. King did. Moral Mondays must embrace the demand for human rights, elevating the demands for social justice above the laws of U.S. imperialism. Human rights are international and inalienable and to demand them places the struggle in an international context.

An important part of the HKOJ strategy that has yet to be implemented is the building of local peoples assemblies in every major city and county to bring together social justice forces as a people’s movement infrastructure. This would help to build mass-based power to impact not only on the legislative and local political districts, but also to build organizations and solidarity, which would empower the people working in and relying on the social and economic institutions where state policies are carried out.[3]

Tactics

The civil disobedience phase that resulted in the arrests of 941 Moral Monday activists was a very important tactic. Some viewed it as replicating a tactic of the Southern Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. King to give it a historical political connection. Others viewed it and engaged in it as a tactic to help raise the level of militancy of the mass struggles, as well as to expose the increasing repression and role of the state in pushing austerity policies, as it denies democratic and constitutional rights to people’s movements.

The trials of about 50 of the Moral Mondays arrestees have helped to expose the repressive role of the state. They showed how the police agencies were secretly coming into the Moral Mondays meetings and conducting surveillance, and how the court’s rulings were inconsistent and sought to divide and create confusion among the arrestees.

There was a struggle within the Moral Mondays campaign following the first court conviction. There was a call for Moral Mondays leaders and mobilizations to demand the dropping of charges against all Moral Mondays arrestees and the overturning of all convictions, in order to highlight the struggle against the state’s criminalizing of the right to protest. However, the labor arrestees and their allies independently had to initiate the actual struggle around these demands, a struggle which needs to get stronger.

Moral Mondays have helped to create a statewide climate of mass fightback that can encourage and support local fightbacks led by local organizations and social movements. North Carolina is referred to as ground zero in the mass fightback against the right.

In generalizing that the attacks on the people are morally unconscionable in an effort to reflect the multiclass and multiracial breath of the Moral Mondays mobilizations, it is important not to downplay the racist and depression-level impacts that the cuts and policies are having on working-class Black and other people of color and women; how the media criminalize these disproportionately impacted communities, and why there is greater police brutality, government repression, vigilante violence against and mass incarceration of the people in and from these communities.

The Black Workers For Justice made a call at the “No More Trayvons” rallies it sponsored for people to come to the Moral Monday the following day with signs and banners demanding: “Justice For Trayvon Martin!” and “Stop the War on Black America!” A few hundred signs were distributed and held high by Black people, other people of color and many whites. There was an increase in the turnout of Black people at the Moral Monday following the court’s “not guilty” verdict of Trayvon’s murderer, George Zimmerman. As one radical minister said, Moral Mondays are a real opportunity to provide an anti-racist education to the large number of whites participating in them.

Tactics vary in the Moral Mondays movement, depending on the initiative of the organizations and movements participating. There was a Moral Mondays rally in Washington, N.C., a working-class city with a significant Black population, which opposed the closing of the Vidant Pungo hospital. It had been recently purchased by the Vidant Medical Center, a regional monopoly serving 1.4 million people in 29 Black Belt counties in the northeastern part of the state.

An informational picket has also been launched at the stores of billionaire Tea Party and ALEC financer and N.C. State Budget Director Art Pope. These actions show the potential of the Moral Mondays in helping to expose the corporate class’s domination over state government, and the importance of challenging the capitalist economic base in the struggle against austerity.[4]

Mobilizing labor’s rank and file

On Sept. 21, 2013, the Southern Workers Assembly (SWA) organized a labor fightback conference that brought together North Carolina rank-and-file members, and leaders and organizers of several unions and organizing campaigns to hammer out a “Workers Democracy Campaign” to raise the visibility of labor in the Moral Mondays movement, and to carry out and promote fightback at the workplace, as well as the right to organize. This conference took place following the arrests of the SWA Moral Mondays labor delegation and after the holding of a series of public hearings in three cities to bring forth their issues and demands.

Following the conference and the agitation by the SWA, we began to see the following rank-and-file actions: Teachers, parents and students held “walk-ins” at the public schools in cities across the state. They wore red T-shirts to protest overcrowded class sizes, low teachers pay and the state budget cuts in education. United Food and Commercial Workers union members held a flash mob about poor working conditions and the right to organize inside of a Walmart store. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) continues the struggle and demands that the R.J. Reynolds Corporation bargain with the tobacco workers organized by FLOC. The N.C. Public Service Workers Union-UE 150, held rallies at mental health hospitals and delivered demands to the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources headquarters. The fast-food workers campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour helped to popularize and energize the growing struggles for workers’ democracy and power that are beginning to converge.

This conscious effort to organize and raise the profile, voice and influence of labor is a growing aspect of the Moral Mondays movement. The SWA has been building a rank-and-file movement, which is trying to push labor activism and social movement unionism from the bottom up. Some national unions whose main memberships are outside of the South have contributed financial support, but most have not made a serious effort to mobilize their rank and file as part of and in support of Moral Mondays.

The passage of a resolution at the AFL-CIO National Convention in 2013 on organizing the South was partly influenced by the success of the Moral Mondays mobilizations of thousands in North Carolina, and it recognized its potential to expand southwide as another civil rights movement. Representatives and allies of the SWA played an important role in developing the language of the resolution and for introducing it into the national convention. An officer in the N.C. state AFL-CIO, who is active in Moral Mondays, led a workshop at the convention on organizing in the South.[5]

Toward building a national movement

According to Saladin Muhammad;

Another weakness in the Moral Mondays has been the lack of demands on and criticisms of the federal government’s complicity with the dictates of big capital and the impact of this on the states. This is due, in part, to not wanting to appear to attack the Obama administration, especially when he is constantly under racist attack from the right. This is also a result of the lack of a popular understanding that Obama is the president of an imperialist state-dominated international economic system, and that the corporate powers demand that he protect this system. Helping to raise consciousness on this is one of the important tasks of the left within this movement.
The Supreme Court’s removal of Section IV of the Voting Rights Act, and the U.S. Congress’s shutdown of parts of the federal government has enabled many to begin to see the power and rule of the corporate class over the federal government, even under the Obama administration.
The spreading of Moral Mondays to other cities throughout the South and across the country will help to sharpen the connection between the struggles against corporate domination of the states and the struggles against corporate rule over the federal government.
One of the important lessons and strengths of the Civil Rights Movement was that it did not allow the federal government to hide behind states’ rights as a way of refusing to deal with state laws throughout the South that collectively created Jim Crow, a racist system of national and colonial oppression. The Civil Rights Movement challenged those considered by some as allies, like Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, even though they signed an Executive Order, and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.
The spreading of Moral Mondays is very important. However, these mobilizations must be led by people’s movement coalitions, democratically involving people’s organizations, and not run by a single organization, however sincere, dedicated and articulate the leader.
To connect and better coordinate the work of civil rights organizations in Mississippi in 1962, and to prevent a single organization from calling all the shots, the Council of Federated Organizations was formed as a sort of a united front involving the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and SNCC.
The Moral Mondays radicalization of the clergy and their church members is very important. However, the emphasis on moral principles must not give the clergy an automatic right to leadership in Moral Mondays over those in social movements and mass organizations. That was the initial thinking at the founding of the SCLC in 1957.
It is also important not to misinterpret Dr. King’s call for the United States to have a moral conscience as simply meaning that the minds of those in legislative positions need to change. He was talking about the immorality of a system that places profits and wars over human needs and that it must be fundamentally changed.
The student sit-ins at the Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., spread throughout the South and influenced the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement. Those protests, and Ella Baker’s efforts that helped to found SNCC, were independent initiatives that helped to influence the tactics and political demands of the Civil Rights Movement.
In sum, we have to place this Moral Mondays campaign within our understanding of the period we are in now. The main question is whether we are in motion, whether we are organizing and mobilizing to fight back. When people fight, they raise questions about power and oppression. When people fight back, they learn because they know that by learning, they can fight better.
The Black Left Unity Network must help to spread the Moral Mondays and similar movements to other cities across the country. Part of the BLUN role must be to mobilize radical-thinking people rooted in the mass struggles to join the fight; work to raise the level of thinking of the people being radicalized by the struggle; and work to organize cooperation of the radical forces to help advance the strategy and tactics that can guide the movement on to victory at this juncture.[6]

Bond connection

In 2006, William J. Barber II and company began building the Historic Thousands on Jones Street Coalition, and Julian Bond attended several of these annual People’s Assemblies. He encouraged our State Conference to transform our once-a-year actions at the People’s House into once-a-week actions, which the media called Moral Mondays.[7]

References