How Moral Monday’s “Fusion Politics” Trumped North Carolina’s Right-Wing Extremists and How They Will Continue to Do So

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, addresses the crowd during the annual King Day at the Dome rally at the State House, Monday, January 16, 2012. The event featured a service at Zion Baptist Church and a march down Main Street towards the capitol. (Gerry Melendez/The State/MCT)
Moral Mondays’ Rev. Dr. William Barber II.

The Forward Together Moral Movement in North Carolina, better known as “Moral Monday,” is not a political party.  A political party merely seeks to take power.  The Moral Movement understands that the real victory of democracy is what Dorothy Day called “a revolution of the heart”— changing ourselves and changing our culture, not merely changing our leaders.In my faith tradition, the book of Mark asks us, “For what should it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”  This is as true for a culture as it is for an individual.

For the Moral Movement, victory means altering the arc of our history away from the politics of domination toward a social vision grounded in love—in respect for the dignity of ordinary folks, the needs of those most vulnerable among us, the wellbeing of all our children, equality before God and the law, and the health of our democracy.  These commitments are not the property of any one faith or faction; they do not belong to conservatives nor liberals; Republicans nor Democrats; neither Christians, Jews nor Muslims; poor nor wealthy, gay nor straight; deeply rooted natives of North Carolina nor the newly arrived whether from Mexico or Minnesota: they are common to all faiths and also to those who arrive at this vision by human reason or simply by faith in a moral universe.  The Moral Movement belongs to all who seek to build communities that reflect our most deeply held moral values.

Our vision transcends the outcome of any election.  It does require that we understand our moment in the unfolding history that we are trying to change—starting with what happened in our most recent election.

We must begin by underscoring that Donald Trump’s triumph across the South in 2016 did not extend to North Carolina’s Governor Pat McCrory, who became the only incumbent GOP governor in America to lose in 2016 and the first sitting governor of North Carolina since 1850 to fail in a reelection bid.

McCrory didn’t go out honorably. Though his opponent, Roy Cooper, had more than a five-thousand vote lead, McCrory refused to concede.  He then spent nearly a month making demonstrably false claims about “voter fraud” aimed largely at African Americans.  His campaign manager said, “With each passing day, we discover more and more cases of voting fraud and other irregularities.”  Questioned about these claims, McCrory’s spokesman Ricky Diaz replied, “The real question people should be asking is, why is Roy Cooper fighting to count the votes of dead people and felons.”  McCrory’s campaign was unable to corroborate any such thing.

Accounts of alien abductions outnumbered reports of voter fraud.  The Republican-controlled North Carolina Board of Elections reported that out of forty million ballots cast from 2000 to 2013, they found only two attempts at voter impersonation, neither of them leading to a conviction. Asked why their charges focused on black communities, Diaz replied, “We didn’t pick the places the Democratic Party chose to commit voter fraud.”  Every county in North Carolina had a Board of Elections controlled by Republicans handpicked by the governor.  But not one of the one hundred Republican-majority boards was willing to affirm McCrory’s allegations of fraud in their county.

Their refusal to lie or obfuscate for their party leader undercut McCrory’s scheme to overturn the election.  For weeks he tried to stir up clouds of doubt over the election process so that his cronies in the General Assembly could exploit a clause in the state constitution that allows the legislature to take control of “contested” elections.  The extremist super-majority would then install McCrory as governor despite the vote tallies.  Meanwhile, they would expand the North Carolina Supreme Court by two more justices, thus nullifying the vote of the African American newly elected Justice Mike Morgan, whose victory had created a Democratic majority on the Court.

McCrory knew from experience that the North Carolina NAACP would sue if he and his cronies stole the election.  Packing the court would mean a new Republican majority that would ratify the legislative seizure of the governor’s office. The Forward Together Moral Movement, well aware of what was afoot, held large demonstrations outside the governor’s office, alerting the state and the nation to McCrory’s machinations.  Shining a light on these schemes raised the price of thievery.

On December 5, twenty-seven days after the last ballot was cast, McCrory finally conceded that he had lost the race to his Democratic opponent, Roy Cooper.  McCrory made one more swipe at “continued questions that should be answered about the voting process.” He did reluctantly concede that Cooper had won the governorship fairly and legally.

Why did Governor McCrory lose his bid for reelection? The answer shows us the beauty of a handmade patchwork quilt.  It teaches us the power of state-based, homegrown, issue-oriented, interracial, intersectional coalition politics.  It demonstrates the genuine power of a moral vision, shared by people of all faiths and by other people who arrive at that vision by way of intellectual and political commitments.

II

Some observers hastily credited McCrory’s defeat to his championing of the unpopular HB2 “bathroom bill.” McCrory loved HB2 like a hound dog loves a bone. As the former mayor of Charlotte, the state’s largest city, McCrory was counting on HB2 to bring out his white rural base.  Unfortunately for him, our Moral Monday Coalition’s protests against HB2 brought down support for it to only thirty percent of North Carolina voters.  We loudly explained over and over again that, in addition to discriminating against the LGBTQ community, HB2 attacks the rights of every North Carolinian that works for a living.  It bars anyone from using the state courts to sue their employer for discrimination of any kind.  It bars local municipalities from passing any ordinance that affects wages, working conditions, hours, benefit, or minority set-asides.  Claiming to protect children, HB2 actually specifically forbids communities from protecting children in the workplace.  The higher we held up the facts on HB2, the less popular the law became.

A decisive piece was the corporate boycott spearheaded by Equality North Carolina, Southerners on New Ground, and the Human Rights Campaign, which the Forward Together Moral Movement strongly supported, in which the NBA, the NCAA, Google, Bank of America, IBM, Apple and dozens of other corporations declined to do more business in North Carolina.  Others cancelled their plans to open offices and manufacturing plants here. This cost the state hundreds of millions in commerce and let the nation know how backward our state government had become.  Shrewd Republicans in metropolitan areas began to run for the tall grass.  McCrory continued to beat his chest and make himself the HB2 poster child.

But the recent HB2 battle does not begin tell whole story. Polling data (more on that anon) suggests McCrory’s slow fade from one of our most popular governors to “One-Term Pat” began with Moral Monday demonstrations launched in the spring of 2013.

Those demonstrations, in turn, have their own back story, dating to the struggle over Amendment One, which was approved by voters during the spring 2012 primary season. This constitutional amendment, championed by far-right extremists, purported to ban gay marriage forevermore. (It was overturned by the Courts in 2014.)  GOP strategists hoped hammering the hot button would gin up turnout among their base.  Leaked documents stated: “The strategic goal of [Amendment One] is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies.” They assumed, as did the national press, that black voters would support Amendment One.  National publications churned out stories about how African Americans in North Carolina would soon abandon Barack Obama over gay marriage.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, the president of the North Carolina NAACP and convener of Historic Thousands on Jones Street (“HK on J”), a statewide progressive coalition, saw marriage equality neither as a partisan nor a racial issue but as a moral and civil rights issue.  Barber was in the process of becoming the most significant moral and political leader in North Carolina in the last century if not longer, and a significant national figure.  Joining with Equality North Carolina, the Human Rights Campaign, and Southerners on New Ground, the North Carolina NAACP and HK on J organized an alliance to stop Amendment One that integrated thousands from the LGBTQ community into the North Carolina NAACP and the HK on J coalition and attracted large numbers of other citizens of all colors and commitments. In so doing, he greatly increased the political strength of the movement to stop Amendment One but also expanded the statewide progressive coalition into an enormous activist army.

Day after day, as winter turned into spring in 2012, Rev. Dr. Barber explained that Amendment One was a civil rights issue.  Across the whole state, he preached that a vote on Amendment One had nothing to do with your personal and religious opinion on same-sex marriage but instead on whether you believed discrimination should be codified in the constitution.  He also pointed out that the forces pushing Amendment One were the very ones suing to overturn the Voting Rights Act, that opposed us on voting rights, public education, compassion for the poor, women’s rights and environmental protection. He made it clear that the children and grandchildren of the civil rights movement would never fall for this Trojan horse and write inequality into law.  And we did not.

Despite the flurry of misguided predictions in the press and despite the braying of a few well-rewarded black preachers, the African American community refused to support Amendment One.  In the black precincts of all seven of North Carolina’s metropolitan areas, the amendment lost two-to-one or even three-to-one.  The predominantly white mountain counties and the Republican suburbs voted heavily in favor and our cause lost badly.  But from that defeat emerged a broader and more energetic movement that transcended any partisan electoral battle.  Our historic alliance with the LGBTQ community only enlarged our transformational fusion politics. Our bond would prove to be stronger than the governor’s power-mongering.

III

When Pat McCrory entered office in the fall of 2012, his favorable ratings were as high as 65 percent; 25 percent of Democrats had cast their ballots for him. McCrory marketed himself as a pro-business moderate, a different kind of Republican, and pledged not to sign any more restrictions on abortion.  The charade sold like hotcakes: he won by 12 points while GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney barely eked out a two-point victory in North Carolina.

McCrory quickly proved that he did not intend to rule as a moderate.  Instead he joined forces with the hard-right extremists that had taken control of the legislature in 2010 and 2012. When they first got into office, they gerrymandered the state’s legislative districts along racial lines, “stacking and packing” black voters, which allowed Tea Party conservatives to sweep in an extremist super-majority in 2012.  The 2012 races for U.S. House of Representatives in North Carolina’s 13 new districts illustrate how outrageous the gerrymandering became: Democrats polled 81,190 votes more than the GOP candidates and ended up with four seats; the Republicans got nine.

With a radical-right supermajority, McCrory ratified a raft of mean-spirited measures that Ohio’s Republican Governor John Kasich branded “a war on the poor.”  They slashed unemployment benefits by 35 percent and reduced the number of weeks of eligibility below the minimum required to receive federal emergency extended benefits.  This denied federal unemployment benefits to 170,000 workers, citizens whose paychecks over the years had deducted for unemployment insurance, even though it would have cost the state nothing.

Much of the legislation McCrory signed was not only mean but also downright crazy.  The legislative supermajority passed laws permitting people to carry guns in restaurants, bars, and on college campuses—alcohol and pistols, just like the Wild West.  They repealed the Racial Justice Act, which had allowed those sentenced to death to plead for life without parole if there was clear evidence that their sentence had been influenced by race.  Although candidate McCrory had given his solemn word not to support further restrictions on abortion rights, the extremists sneaked anti-abortion measures first into a bill banning Sharia law, then into a law about motorcycle safety. McCrory signed it.  The Republican legislature developed a habit of passing controversial laws in the middle of the night, hoping to minimize press coverage.

The extremists pushed per pupil spending for public education to 49th in the nation—teacher pay was already down there.  They overturned due process for veteran teachers and eliminated pay incentives for teachers who completed masters degrees.  They pushed through a series of measures that pointed toward their goal of privatizing the public schools; these included a voucher scheme that drained millions of tax dollars from public education into corporate-owned or religious schools. Even among the conservative Republicans in the mountain counties, attacks on public schools were not popular.  One prominent Republican critic charged the extremists with forgetting that “the right to a K-12 education is enshrined in the state constitution,” along with a clause barring the use of public education money for any other purpose.  Sadly noting that they had let themselves become “tagged as the anti-education party,” he reminded Republicans: “Public education [in North Carolina] is broadly seen as a public good.”

Public good was a tough concept for McCrory and crew.  They blocked Medicaid expansion, denying healthcare coverage to 500,000 of the state’s most vulnerable citizens, most of them poor whites in rural communities who had voted for McCrory.  His refusal to expand Medicaid shoved many rural hospitals toward bankruptcy.  When a fellow Republican, Mayor Adam O’Neill of Belhaven, asked for McCrory’s help to save the town’s hospital, the governor said there was nothing he could do.  Vidant, a huge corporate medical conglomerate, just bulldozed the hospital a few days ago.

At the heart of it all was McCrory’s “tax reform,” which replaced the graduated income tax with a so-called “flat tax,” so that a billionaire and his maid paid the same tax rate.  He eliminated the inheritance tax, which only applied to estates worth over five million dollars.  At the same time, he eliminated the Earned Income Tax Credit, raising taxes on 900,000 of North Carolina’s working poor.  So-called “tax reform” removed deductions for college expenses and childcare expenses, slamming middle-class families.  It ended the deduction for medical expenses, hitting seniors hard.  McCrory imposed new taxes on repairs to automobiles and appliances, which was merciful to the few who simply bought new ones, but hard on most folks, to to whom a new car or refrigerator was a luxury.  McCrory’s team left big tax breaks for the owners of yachts and private jets.

On the whole, the McCrory administration raised taxes on the 80 percent of taxpayers who made less than $67,000 a year while granting huge tax breaks to the super-wealthy. The August 2013 issue of The American Conservative, a right-wing magazine founded by Pat Buchanan, featured an article called “How Raleigh’s Republicans Forgot the Working Class,” which accused the governor and legislature of making “policy choices that hurt working class families combined with an inability to defend their reforms without relying on stale conservative rhetoric.”

Having performed “Robin-Hood-in-Reverse,” taking from the poor and giving to the rich, McCrory and his band of bandits feared the political consequences that might befall them when North Carolina’s people began to notice this grand larceny.  The governor seemed to have said to himself, “They just might wake up.”  And so he and his G.O.P. allies sought to cement themselves into office with new voting laws.

IV

In June of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the notorious Shelby v. Holder decision.  The ruling freed states with a long history of electoral race discrimination to rewrite their voting statutes without oversight by the Justice Department.  A few weeks later, the extremist leadership filed a bill that one court later described as “the worst voting law since Jim Crow.”  Commonly known as “Voter ID,” the new voter suppression bill featured a long list of other measures, all of which were calculated to lower turnout among the elderly, college students, and minority voters.  Every policy change in the bill was based on African American voting behavior: it cut early voting, popular with black voters, by an entire week; ended straight ticket voting; and slashed Sunday voting, which black churches had used for their “Souls to the Polls” turnout campaigns.  It eliminated same-day registration and out of precinct voting, and took away counties’ power to extend voting hours during extraordinary circumstances.  It even shut down a program in which sixteen- and seventeen-year-old high school students could pre-register to vote in their civics classes or when they got their first driver’s license.

The North Carolina NAACP immediately sued Governor McCrory for racial discrimination in the new voting law.  Using subpoenaed email among the bill’s sponsors and their staffs, our attorneys were able to clearly establish what the court would call “racially discriminatory intent.”  Three years later (during which time the governor’s attorneys never presented a single case of documented voter fraud), in North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory, a federal court struck down the law as unconstitutional, ruling that it “target)d African Americans with almost surgical precision.”  The governor and the hardcore extremists in the legislature may not have cared, but for many citizens this was not the kind of North Carolina that they wanted to read about in the nation’s newspapers or see on CNN.

Thousands of North Carolinians knew that we could not afford to wait quietly while our democracy was under attack.  In the spring of 2013, as the voter suppression law was quickly making its way through the legislature, we organized a series of demonstrations at the legislature every Monday afternoon at 5:00.  On April 29, seventeen of us gathered with a few dozen of our friends and allies gathered at a historic black church in downtown Raleigh and prepared to make a moral witness at the legislature.

We carried with us an open letter we had published entitled “Why We Are Here.”  It read, in part:

We are calling together a coalition of goodwill, a nonviolent volunteer army of love, to oppose this legislature’s heartless, ideologically driven agenda.  We call on all people of good will to join us, that we might build the bridges of understanding, not the walls of division.  We call on all residents of North Carolina who believe in the common good to pray and partner with us as we use the tools of protest and the tactics of nonviolent moral suasion to illuminate for the nation the shameful acts taking place here. We are not alone. We shall speak and we shall act.  We will become “the trumpet of conscience” and “the beloved community” that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called upon us to be, echoing the God of our mothers and fathers in the faith.  Now is the time.  Here is the place.  We are the people.  And we will be heard.

When we reached the General Assembly, seventeen of us—I joined Rev. Dr. Barber and several other clergy, a handful of veteran activists, and a couple of college students—walked up the stairs of the legislature and began to pray and sing outside the huge golden doors of the Senate and the House.  Security officers insisted that we not stand near the doors, but we continued our songs and prayers.  After a short while, the Capitol Police arrested, handcuffed, and bused us to jail.  As the prison transport bus pulled out, however, we saw an impromptu rally of our supporters on the sidewalk.  They began to chant loudly, over and over again, “Thank you.  We love you.” And so Moral Monday was born.

V

The following Monday, when we met at the church, eighty people showed up, thirty of them ready to engage in civil disobedience.  After we prepared everyone, we carpooled to the General Assembly.  Though we had made no real effort to organize a demonstration, several hundred people waited for us.  As the thirty witnesses lined up to enter, the crowd created two lines to protect and surround them.  They led us into the building and proceeded to stand in front of the big golden doors.  Hundreds more poured into the building and went to the rotunda, where there was singing, preaching, prayer and laughter.  When the police handcuffed the witnesses and led them to the elevator one by one, the crowd of supporters went outside to find the prison transport bus and held a rally across the street from it.  After an hour, the police began to lead our smiling, handcuffed friends onto the bus.  Then came the exalting cheer from the first Moral Monday that we would repeat for weeks and years to come: “Thank you. We love you.  Thank you.  We love you.”  The young people in the coalition also liked to lead us in a hip-hop inflected chant of “revolutionary love, love, love / revolutionary love, love, love.”

Moral Mondays emerged as the voice of a large and growing movement in North Carolina to resist the hard-hearted, shortsighted, ideologically driven travesty of a state government at war with its people, especially the most poor and vulnerable.  Week after week we came, first by the hundreds, then by the thousands, crying out in what became our trademark call and response: “Forward together!” would come from one voice at the podium or standing on a car. And then the crowd would thunder back, “Not one step back!”  Tens and tens of thousands of citizens of every hue, every faith, and every persuasion joined the movement.

We founded a secular and inclusive church of sorts, what some scholars might call a “movement culture,” in which we became like a huge family, singing our songs, telling our stories, focusing on a large range of issues from week to week and month to month.  New and ever-larger groups of witnesses volunteered for civil disobedience, nearly all having one of the most powerful spiritual experiences of their lives.  As we waited for the prison transport buses every week, filled with more and more members of our new family, people began to chant, “Bring another bus, baby, there are more of us!”  Indeed there were.  Over a thousand people were arrested in the course of this campaign, which has never really ended but has taken new forms.  On a cold February morning in 2014, according to USA Today, eighty thousand people attended the Moral March on Raleigh—the largest civil rights demonstration in the history of the South outside of Washington, D.C. But I am getting ahead of myself.

In the spring and summer of 2013, we kept the cruel and outrageous policies of Governor McCrory and his legislative colleagues in the bright light of day.  Because we created news coverage every week, the media kept the issues of poverty, unencumbered access to the polls, women’s rights, clean air and clean water, the lives and rights of immigrants, LGBTQ equality, healthcare for all, and other important concerns constantly in front of the people.  We did not have to tell people that McCrory’s policies were bad.  We just had to tell them what they were.  We kept our vision of love at the forefront.

And as people began to pay more attention, a funny thing happened. Public Policy Polling’s post-election analysis tells the story: http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2016/12/why-pat-mccrory-lost-and-what-it-means-in-trumps-america.html

The governor’s polls, which were at 65 when Moral Monday began on April 29, 2013, fell steadily as the demonstrations showed North Carolinians what was happening at their state legislature and their governor’s office.  By the first of June, McCrory’s favorables stood at fifty—our trumpeting of his policies had brought him down fifteen points. By July, his polls were down to 40 percent.  At the first of September, only 35 percent approved of McCrory’s leadership, while 53 percent disapproved.  Half of the state’s voters agreed that the state government was embarrassing North Carolina in front of the nation; only 34 percent disagreed with that assessment.  McCrory never recovered from the moral critique that the movement wielded against him.  His polls remained negative until October of 2016—39 consecutive months under water.  When the HB2 controversy arrived, voter disapproval of it poured into the gutter that Moral Monday had already carved in McCrory.  Public Policy Polling’s detailed analysis reveals that, in their words, “the seeds of McCrory’s defeat were planted by the Moral Monday movement in the summer of 2013, just months after McCrory took office.”

It took literally a hurricane to bring him back into positive territory—that was Hurricane Matthew when, like governors do, he put on the windbreaker and faced the cameras, looking like he was helping unload truckloads of bottled water and the like. But he lost to Democrat Roy Cooper even when Hurricane Trump blew the South away.

Of course, it is tempting to assess Moral Monday and its successes in merely political terms, but it is important that understand the breadth of this victory.  It amounts to far more than anything that an election can reveal.  Rev. Dr. Barber tells us that what we have seen is God’s hand moving upon the waters, that what we have seen is God’s love made manifest.  This is what I and many others believe, too, though we would all have a political analysis as well and a sense of the organizing strategy that set these wheels to turning.

What God and grassroots democracy have set in motion is a coming together in the name of love and justice.  We have seen new liturgies and new prayers and new hymns and new rituals emerge that pull together black, white, Latino, Asian, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, unbounded mystics and secular believers in justice; young and old, gay and straight, poor and rich, male and female, all free and equal, all different and beautiful, and to all of them we say, “Thank you.  We love you.  Thank you.  We love you. Thank you. We love you.”

This is the power of a moral movement.  This is the power of coming together in service to those values that we hold most high, in the dignity of our best selves and the devotion to our highest visions of God and truth and love.

What God and grassroots democracy have pulled together is a nonviolent, volunteer army of love, bound by God to be the trumpet of conscience, God’s beloved community, God’s hands reaching into the world, the hope and the dream and the fulfilled prayers of our enslaved ancestors and dissident forebears, to those who came before us and struggled in much darker times.  This is the power of moral witness, clasped hands and marching feet.  This is our revolution of the heart.

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