Moral Mondays

Dissecting civil disobedience in today's South
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Photo by Creative Commons.

Beneath the beating rays of the North Carolina sun, I catch sight of a sign carried by a fellow protestor: “Injustices Run Rivers Down the Face of G-d.” Another protestor, a silver-haired woman wearing a purple scarf and holding a rainbow banner, condemns NC Amendment 1, the 2011 ballot initiative that defines marriage as a union between a man and woman. Yards away, a flannel-wearing Greenpeace organizer shouts into his megaphone decrying the state’s legalization of fracking. A man with salt-and-pepper hair from the Unitarian Universalist Church protests to continue his church’s struggle for social justice. Standing before a mass of thousands, a Christian minister who is a leader of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP charges the crowd “to fight for the dream!”

The date is Jun. 3, 2013. It’s the fourth consecutive week of the Moral Mondays protests. Around 5 p.m. every Monday, an army of North Carolinians flood the General Assembly in Raleigh to revolt against the state legislators who sit inside.

I’m working this summer as an assistant field organizer for UE 150, one of the state’s municipal labor unions. I’m no stranger to the South — I’m Tennessee born and bred, and I’ve spent holidays in Charlotte. I’d grown up seeing the effects of weak labor unionism in the South. Three weeks into my job with UE 150, I’m running through the Moral Mondays crowd with a clipboard, collecting signatures on the union’s petition against two House Bills recently passed.

The people of North Carolina are angry. They’re angry, protestors tell me, at a state government that has shrunk the public school budget to a historical low. They’re angry at the state’s assault on voting rights that were originally installed to empower low-income and minority communities to vote. Jostling my way through shouting crowds, I recall what Yale historian Andy Horowitz calls “the American freedom struggle that began in 1776,” the unique form of inequality that each generation must tackle to realize the promise of a more perfect union. To many of these angry protestors, the legislature has undone the work of the Civil Rights Movement. In some ways, Moral Mondays is bringing back the sense of protest and progressivism from that turbulent period of the South’s history.

But today in 2013, as I stand amidst a crowd of diverse people protesting for broad agendas — agendas that are farther-reaching than any fought for by activists in the 1960s — I cannot help but think that the current challenge facing these protestors is not only how to most effectively oppose the North Carolina legislature. Another tougher struggle is their struggle to stick together. The toughest obstacle for the Moral Mondays protestors may be the Moral Mondays coalition itself.

***

The following Monday, during a summer gale, I find myself at the State Assembly, pushing up the sleeves of my rain jacket to join a line of protestors entering the legislature. As our line moves forward, I join hands with a Lutheran preacher, a six-foot-five man from Winston-Salem wearing a rainbow stole. I hear the president of the North Carolina NAACP, Rev. William Barber, shouting, “We faced fire hoses, dogs, and lynchings to secure our rights! The Republicans cannot take away the rights our parents and grandparents literally died for!”

In recent anti-austerity movements in Michigan and Wisconsin — the respective birthplaces of American trade unionism and progressivism — the language of protests has been seeped with hope for greater economic justice and equality. Here at Moral Mondays, the rhetoric of protests is inseparable from the religious discourse common to the South. Earlier that day, a minister galvanized protestors with a version of the famous polemic of anti-Nazi Lutheran minister, Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the LGBT community, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a member of the LGBT community. Then they came for the blacks, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t black … And finally. Then they came for me. And there was no one left to speak for me.”

Before beginning my job, I’d assumed from the newspaper headlines I’d seen that the crowd would be made up of mostly African-American clergy. But at the threshold of the state capitol, while I do see pastors and church leaders, alongside them are LGBTQ activists, trade unionists, white-collar workers, and a handful of students. The diversity of the crowd surprises me. These are not groups who have traditionally banded together.

We sing in the lobby of the state legislature. (“Woke up this morning with my miiiind, stayed on freedom!”) My voice and the voice of the Lutheran minister blend in with 90 others around us. Many of these songs originated during the Civil Rights Movement, and were used to challenge the violence and injustice committed across the South when conservative legislators were lobbying to preserve Jim Crow.
We keep singing. “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around! Turn me around! Turn me around!”

The security guards command the crowd to disperse, but we don’t move. The first person they handcuff is an 80-year-old black man from Pinehurst, who has spent his retirement growing tomatoes and volunteering for his church. He missed the Civil Rights Protest while serving in Vietnam, and feels he owes all those who fought for his rights. Today he wants to “give back what had been given to him.”
Eventually, we’re all arrested, handcuffed, and taken to the cafeteria in the basement of the legislature.

***

I sit in a row filled with ministers while waiting to be taken to the Wake County Detention Center. One by one we introduce ourselves and the faith community we represent. I think to myself that it sounds like a bad joke: a Lutheran, an AME Zion, a Unitarian, and a Baptist minister all sit handcuffed, leaving the state legislature. When it’s my turn to speak, I chuckle and say I’m not a rabbi, but I am Jewish.
As we walk into the detention center, a guard thanks us. The state, he tells us, “is in a bad way.” We’re sorted into holding cells, and the guards seat me beside Eric Smith, a retired Duke University librarian and, along with myself, one of the few nonclergy present. Smith is gay, and he joined the protest after the legislature introduced NC Amendment 1 (the ballot initiative that marginalized the LGBTQ community by defining marriage as union of a man and woman).

Smith and I learn that, two weeks earlier, we’d attended the same church meeting in Durham, a meeting to rally support for Moral Mondays. As we talk about Amendment 1 and the state’s position on gay rights, we both recall a crowd-riling speech given by Reverend Curtis Gatewood, a representative from the NAACP. The spirit of LGBTQ equality in his words was unmistakable. Gatewood pointed out the Republican Party’s hypocrisy in referencing Christianity when it supports their causes, but ignoring it otherwise. “They said the Bible prohibits gay marriage. Now, they cut welfare. Where are the Bibles? Now they cut MedicAid. Where are the Bibles?” he shouted. “Now I don’t condone homosexuality, but I know the Bible only talks about it once. How many times does the Bible talk about justice? About treating each other fairly? Nearly every page!”
In the holding area, Smith asks me if I, too, had heard Gatewood say that he didn’t condone homosexuality. I told him I had.

Smith worries that the NAACP isn’t pushing hard enough for LGBTQ equality in the black community. Moral Mondays has roots in the fight against Amendment 1, and Smith first learned of Reverend Barber (the president of the North Carolina NAACP) from an impassioned speech he delivered condemning the Amendment. But Smith worries that in order to avoid alienating conservative North Carolina African-Americans, the NAACP has decided to distance itself somewhat from the topic of LGBTQ equality.

The religious language of Gatewood’s speech, meant to empower all North Carolinians and welcome them into the kingdom of G-d, falters when it comes to gay people. Gatewood’s speech reveals the struggle necessary to maintain the diverse coalition of Moral Mondays.

***

I’m jostled awake in the car at 2 a.m. After being held for 10 hours at the Wake County Detention Center, I’m riding back to Charlotte. Earlier that day I’d thought that I had secured transportation from Raleigh, but due to a mix-up, my ride had returned without me. I’d managed to catch a ride with an AME Zion bishop, an older woman with long curly hair and a massive cross around her neck. She is from Gastonia, a mill town suburb of Charlotte. In the car, she lights incense to “keep the devil away.”

The others sitting in the car include Ladale Benson, a liberal Baptist minister, and another AME Zion minister. Benson is arguing with the other two about sin and free will. “Of course we all sin!” Benson exclaims. Making mistakes is a natural human action, he says. The AME Zionist bishop and minister say that while life is determined by G-d, we choose to sin, and those who sin go to hell. The bishop points to me gravely and says, “If you are a homosexual, you will turn black, like me, before you die!”

Astounded, I fail to respond, but Benson steps in. “Gay people are G-d’s children too,” he says to the bishop. “They sin, just like everyone else.” I sit in silence as the bishop and ministers argue all the way back to Charlotte.

***

Even with the protests’ seemingly united front, conflicting opinions still run wild beneath its surface. Away from the color and chaos, the differences between religiously conservative protestors like the woman in the car and liberals like Eric Smith appear sharper. I realize that the minister in the car is caught up in a movement that, in many ways, is anathema to her.

But the minister still protests, and her religion does not contradict her overall cause. The stereotype of Southerners who President Obama said “cling to guns or religion” fails to fully capture the role of religion in the political world of the South. In part, it is because citizens like the AME Zion bishop from Gastonia have traditionally turned to churches when other institutions have failed them. In 1865, the federal government officially ended slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment, but failed to protect freedmen from the racial violence they’d come to experience during Reconstruction. In the mid-20th century, state officials of North Carolina supported policies that alleviated poverty and illiteracy, but, in the eyes of the protestors, those days are gone. Religion promises comfort — if not in this world, then at least in the next.

Anders Hultgard, a former religious historian at the University of Uppsala, writes in “Persian Apocalypticism” that “Apocalyptic hope is invariably hope deferred. Nonetheless, it has persisted as a recurring feature of Western religion for over 2000 years. While it can never deliver on its promises, it continues to speak eloquently to the hearts of those who would otherwise have no hope at all.” The belief the bishop has in her religion, in one way, aligns with her belief in standing with Moral Mondays: larger powers have failed her community’s trust, and new sources of power must be found.

***

Three days after the ride back from Raleigh, I email Benson to thank him for the courage I failed to muster in the car. I explain that the stand he took meant much to me because I am gay. The previous week, I’d spoken with a rabbi who chose not to participate in the Moral Mondays protests. He explained, “A rabbi cannot alienate the congregation he or she represents. We represent Republicans and Democrats.”

The rabbi differed greatly from Jeremiah, the weeping prophet who denounced the idolatry of the Israelites — despite his own brothers beating him, the king arresting him, and the officials locking him in the stocks. Benson, in contrast, rose to the occasion to challenge his Baptist congregation and defended gay people against the bishop’s remarks. In the end, it was the Baptist minister who exemplified the values that, in my opinion, the House of Israel should have. The word Israel means, “to struggle with G-d” in Hebrew, and Benson did not shy away from the struggles of G-d or man.

Al Locklear, the president of UE 150 in Charlotte and a lifelong worker for Charlotte solid waste disposal, explains why people should continue to fight the legislative agenda, “[The legislature is] taking people’s rights away from them … Already, people aren’t getting paid for the work they do. They’re trying to work us like slaves. Overworked, underpaid, understaffed. Everybody has to work two, three jobs. The families suffer. Be fair. That’s all I want.”

Today in North Carolina, the movement continues in the form of smaller protests across the state, in Asheville, Charlotte, and other cities. The hope is that voters will remain mobilized for the 2014 General Assembly elections. But the bigger hope for the Moral Mondays movement is that today, half a century after the Civil Rights Movement, the coalition won’t allow inner strife to get in its way. “Let’s get the job done together,” Locklear said. The bigger hope is that today, half a century after the Civil Rights Movement, the coalition of discontent doesn’t allow its dream to get deferred.

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