Moral Mondays blossoms in North Carolina and beyond

Rev. Dr. William Barber speaking at a Moral Monday rally on July 15. (Flickr/twbuckner)

Rev. Dr. William Barber speaking at a Moral Monday rally on July 15. (Flickr/twbuckner)

“My arrest sheet says ‘arrested for praying, singing and talking loud’ — in other words, for preaching,” thundered Rev. William Barber, a leader of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, from the Wild Goose Festival’s main stage last weekend in Hot Spring, N.C. “I appreciate an audience like this so I can speak to an audience that’s not like this.”

Barber and hundreds of others from across the state — including a growing number of clergy — have been arrested at the capitol in Raleigh as part of a weekly, nonviolent protest since late April, resisting the Republican-led legislature’s wholesale attack on the state’s social safety net and the infrastructure of civil society.

Beginning earlier this year the Republican super-majority has legislated severe cuts to public school funding (while approving a voucher program for private schools); terminated unemployment benefits for 170,000 North Carolinians (and slashed them for everyone else); rejected an expansion of Medicaid as part of the U.S. government’s new health care policies; ended the earned income tax credit for working, low-income families; and made voting harder by restricting early voting, ending same-day registration, prohibiting state-sponsored voter registration drives, and creating stricter voter ID requirements.

Over the course of 13 Mondays, 960 people — from millionaires to the unemployed — have engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience to challenge the harsh new direction the state is taking.

While the protests have not derailed these new policies — the Republican-dominated legislature has been able to pass one bill after another — there are, at the same time, signs that this campaign is beginning to make headway. Barber, the president of the NAACP in North Carolina, who is also a Disciples of Christ minister, quoted polls indicating that the Moral Mondays movement is now more popular in the state than the legislature. If the power and success of a movement ultimately flows from its ability to alert, educate, and mobilize the populace, this polling data may indicate that this effort is on its way to generating the people-power needed to create long-term change.

This week the movement entered its next phase. As the legislature finished its work in Raleigh at the end of July, campaign strategists swung their attention to the home districts of legislators across the state. Moral Monday actions are being organized each week in a different North Carolina city, and on August 27 this contemporary civil rights movement will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington with simultaneous actions across the state. At the same time, the movement has begun to make the leap beyond North Carolina, with Moral Monday actions taking place this week in Chicago and Oakland focused on challenging policies aimed at dismantling hard-won gains for justice.

Rev. Barber arrived at the fourth annual Wild Goose Festival a few days after the second stage of the Moral Mondays movement was launched in nearby Asheville, where 8,000 to 10,000 people rallied. The festival — held this year near the North Carolina-Tennessee border along the Appalachia Trail, surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Pisgah National Forest — is an annual gathering “at the intersection of justice, spirituality, music and art” that draws people who are both progressive and Christian, though not everyone would claim these allegiances. There were over 40 musical acts, scores of speakers and a series of workshops held in a dozen covered spaces. About 2,200 people attended. I was there with a nonviolence training crew from Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service. We facilitated three workshops over as many days for several hundred people.

Most people camped — and all of us were drenched by the line of dramatic thunderstorms that periodically staggered through the mountains. On Saturday night the rain cleared long enough for a couple thousand of us to huddle at the main stage and be showered by the relentless intensity of River Runs North — a band comprised of young Korean-American men and women from Los Angeles — followed by the enduring energy and prophetic imagination of the Indigo Girls.

Everywhere we turned, presenters and participants were doing their best to help Wild Goose make good on its wager that justice has something to do with spirituality and creativity, but also nonviolence. If justice is the goal, the method is active nonviolence — this theme echoed through many presentations, including the exchange between Vincent Harding and Phyllis Tickle unpacking the perils and potential of the path of liberation ahead; Fellowship of Reconciliation organizer Lucas Johnson’s meditation on “nonviolence as a spiritual discipline”; and author and activist John Dear’s incisive exploration of Gandhi’s principles. There was conversation on racism, food justice and intersexuality. There were presentations on forgiveness, liberative parenting, and building inclusive community.

All of this came into sharp focus with Will Barber’s presence. There was an immediacy, breathlessness and monumental substance to the message he delivered from the multiplying front lines of a struggle that is local but at the same time national and global. His mission was not simply to report but to expand those lines, inviting every one of us to see that we are inescapably facing the same choice: will we lean our entire beings in the direction of a world that works for all of us?

With this piercing question Rev. Barber reframed Wild Goose. It was no longer only a festival. Even more than before it was a training ground and launching pad. He called on us to put into clear and unremitting practice the visions, principles, methods — and, yes, even the ocean of lyrics and melodies washing through the forest — that we were encountering in the mountains for real justice. Wild Goose was now less a “Peacepalooza” than an updated Highlander Center — the place in the neighboring state of Tennessee where, decades ago, many Civil Rights movement leaders got their training and some of their marching orders.

Rev. Will Barber invoked Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. often. But to put it this way is not quite right. He wasn’t so much speaking about Dr. King as he was speaking to and with Dr. King: as if he were here, as if he were with all of us in this forest. As if Rev. Barber were checking things with this great trans-historical mentor or ruminating on the state of things with him. There was something both intimate and revealing about this.

It was not surprising then that Rev. Barber closed on a Kingian note. He had detailed in his presentations the destruction the state was facing and the backlash that his movement was experiencing. Nevertheless, like Dr. King he was clear that he and the others organizing to stop this catastrophe were striving to love their enemies. “We must love our enemies,” he said repeatedly, “so that we do not become what we hate.”

In bringing these urgent dispatches from this emerging movement to the Wild Goose Festival, Rev. Barber was rolling both report and invitation into one powerful word, urging us to join this escalating campaign at the crossroads.

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