The power of "we": Martin Luther King, the March on Washington, and the birth of Moral Mondays

North Carolina's Moral Mondays were our response to 21st century injustice -- the essential struggle of our time

Published January 18, 2016 2:00PM (EST)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963.   (AP)
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963. (AP)

Excerpted from "The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement"

Go Home

Late August in North Carolina is harvest time for tobacco growers. Long before the sun rises above the longleaf pines, the air is already thick and heavy in the fields of the eastern sandhills, where I was raised. Men and women roll up their sleeves and bend their backs to prime tobacco, taking the bottom leaves first. I grew up in these fields, listening to the songs people hum when they know there’s work to be done and the day is only going to get hotter. Some days I still wake up humming those songs.

August 28, 2013, I woke up at home in North Carolina. It had been a long, hot summer, and my body was tired. But as a mother of the church in Montgomery, Alabama, famously told Dr. Martin Luther King during the bus boycott, even though my feet were tired, my soul was rested. I woke up that morning humming a song I learned from mothers of the church in eastern North Carolina.

I’ve got a feeling everything’s gonna be all right.

Oh I’ve got a feeling everything’s gonna be all right.

I’ve got a feeling everything’s gonna be all right.

Be all right, be all right, be all right.

Four days before, I’d been in Washington, DC, for the national commemoration of 1963’s March on Washington. Fifty years after that historic day when millions of Americans heard Dr. King’s dream on national television for the first time, civil rights leaders from around the country gathered to commemorate the achievements of freedom fighters who gave so much half a century ago to guarantee the opportunities we often take for granted today. I sat alongside a great hero of that era, Julian Bond, commenting on the day’s celebrations for Melissa Harris-Perry on MSNBC.

But as soon as the festivities were over, I knew I had to go home. I had been invited to go to Washington because Moral Mondays had gained national attention during that summer of 2013. On April 29, 2013, sixteen close colleagues and I had been arrested at the North Carolina statehouse for exercising our constitutional right to publicly instruct our legislators. We did not call it a Moral Monday when we went to the legislature building that day. In fact, it took us nearly three weeks to name what started with that simple act of protest. But when a small group of us stood together, refusing to accept an extreme makeover of state government that we knew would harm the most vulnerable among us, it was like a spark in a warehouse full of cured, dry tobacco leaves.

The following Monday, hundreds returned to the statehouse and twice as many people were arrested. Word of a mass movement spread among justice-loving people throughout North Carolina, igniting thousands who knew from their own experience that something was seriously wrong. Throughout the hot, wet summer of 2013, tens of thousands of people came for thirteen consecutive Moral Mondays. By the end of the legislative session, nearly a thousand people had been arrested in the largest wave of mass civil disobedience since the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960.

Those Moral Monday rallies were on my mind as I hummed the old spiritual that late August morning. Fifty years earlier, in Indianapolis, Indiana, my mother had gone into labor on this very day. The joke in my family is that I, the child in her womb, heard that people were marching for jobs and justice in Washington, so I decided to wait for them before my entrance into the world. By the time I was born two days later, my parents’ friends and coworkers who had made the long trip to Washington were back home. They had heeded Dr. King’s words:

Go back . . . knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Going back home, they did the painstaking work of building communities committed to justice, educating neighbors about issues that affect the common good, and organizing poor people to register, vote, and speak out in their communities. As inspiring as Dr. King was, historians are clear that it was not him alone, but rather the thousands of unnamed people like my parents who turned the tide in America after the March on Washington, guaranteeing the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and, after Bloody Sunday in Selma the following spring, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In fact, it was my father’s commitment to go home and labor in forgotten fields that led him and my mother to return to North Carolina in the late 1960s, sending me to integrate the public schools in Washington County. I was drafted into the justice struggle before I ever had a chance to know anything else. I learned to be a freedom fighter by going home.

Half a century later, I found myself a leader in the reemerging Southern freedom movement, trying to understand a mass movement that had erupted in response to twenty-first-century injustice in my own home state. Moral Mondays had not “just happened.” They resulted from the efforts of 140 organizations that had worked together as a grassroots coalition for seven years. When crowds chanted, “Thank you! We love you!” each week to the scores of arrestees leaving the legislature building in Department of Corrections buses, they were cheering on their pastors, their union leaders, their professors, and their grandmothers. We didn’t just know one another. We were family.

But as much as I knew the people and understood the long, hard organizing work that had made Moral Mondays happen, I did not know how to explain this sudden explosion of resistance. Though it grew out of the familiar ground of freedom, something new was happening before our eyes. Like our foreparents who marched on Washington, we in North Carolina were caught up by the zeitgeist in something bigger than ourselves—something bigger, even, than our understanding. But we knew one thing without a doubt: we had found the essential struggle of our time. Inspired by nothing less than God’s dream, we were ready to go home and do the long, hard work of building up a new justice movement to save the soul of America.

So I was at home on August 28, 2013—that Wednesday when we looked back to remember the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. Our Forward Together Moral Movement held thirteen simultaneous rallies in each of North Carolina’s congressional districts that day, bringing together tens of thousands of people who had been mobilized for action through Moral Mondays. We were black, white and brown, women and men, rich and poor, gay and straight, documented and undocumented, employed and unemployed, doctors and patients, people of faith and people who struggle with faith. We were, it seemed to me as I drove between rallies in Greensboro, Lincolnton, and Charlotte, a glimpse of Dr. King’s dream—of the republic that, though promised and longed for, has never yet been. Baptized in the fi res of mass demonstration, we were a fusion coalition of people committed to reconstructing America itself.

On national television, the networks broadcast commemorative speeches and historical reflections on Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Much of it was interesting history, I’m sure. But I witnessed something far more inspiring at home in North Carolina on the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington. I came home to the beginnings of a Third Reconstruction. After America’s First Reconstruction was attacked by the lynch mobs of white supremacists in the 1870s, it took nearly a hundred years for a Second Reconstruction to emerge in the civil rights movement. Though we ended Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, structural inequality became more sophisticated in the backlash against the movement’s advances. We have a black man in the White House that was built by slaves, but the wealth divide that is rooted in our history of race-based slavery is more extreme than it ever has been. Nothing less than a Third Reconstruction holds the promise of healing our nation’s wounds and birthing a better future for all. But we’re not just waiting for it. We’ve seen what it looks like.

This book is about the Forward Together Moral Movement that began in North Carolina, gained attention through Moral Mondays, and has spread to statehouses and communities throughout America since the summer of 2013. As a first-person account of the events that led up to and beyond Moral Mondays, it is my memoir of the movement. But this is not a story about me. The most important word in the justice vocabulary is always “we.” This is the story of how some unlikely friends joined hands to reclaim the possibility of democracy in the face of corporate-financed extremism. It is an introduction to the fusion politics that give me hope for a future beyond the dead-end of partisan politics in America today.

Because we can never know the ecstasy of true hope without attending to the tragic realities of the poor and forgotten, this is also necessarily a book about what is wrong in America. Among other reasons, we must heed Dr. King’s call to go home because policy analysis inside the Beltway has become detached from the lived experience of millions of Americans who live and die poor in the richest nation that the world has ever seen. I am not a politician. I am a pastor. The job of a pastor is to touch people where they are hurting and to do what is possible to bind up their wounds. You can only do this sort of work locally—among people whose names you know and who, likewise, know you. But you cannot do it honestly without at some point becoming a prophet. Something inside the human spirit cries out against the injustice of inequality when you know people who have to choose between food and medicine in a country where CEOs make more in an hour than their lowest-paid employees make in a month.

It has been said that all politics is local, but our local struggle in North Carolina is of national significance because the extremist forces we have struggled against see our state as a testing ground for their plan to remake America not from DC down, but from the statehouse up. Without any sense of irony in places where “state sovereignty commissions” fought to maintain Jim Crow segregation laws fifty years ago, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) solicits donations on its website by asking people to help them “return sovereignty to the states.” Under the leadership of the ALEC board member Thom Tillis, then speaker of the house in North Carolina, we saw what their plan looks like in action: the defunding of state government through a flat tax that increased the burden on poor people while giving the wealthiest a windfall; the denial of federally funded health care to half a million North Carolinians; the rejection of federal unemployment benefits for 170,000 individuals and their families; cuts to public education that increase teachers’ workloads while decreasing overall compensation; deregulation of industries that have a demonstrated record of environmental abuse; a constitutional amendment to deny equal protection to gay and lesbian citizens; and the worst voter-suppression bill America has seen in over half a century. These were the ill-conceived and barely considered policy decisions about which we sought to instruct our legislators, as our state constitution guarantees every citizen the right to do. Rather than meet with us, Tillis and his colleagues had over a thousand of us, their constituents, illegally arrested, until a judge in Wake County Superior Court finally ruled in favor of our defense, nearly a year and a half after the first arrests. By that time, Thom Tillis was on his way to represent North Carolina in the US Senate.

As much as our Forward Together Moral Movement has sought to expose ALEC’s state-based strategy to remake America, we have also tried to make clear to justice-loving people that any attempt to reconstruct America in these perilous times must likewise look to the states. And among these United States, our history of inequality and injustice is nowhere more rigidly defined and painfully exposed than in the Southern states. But precisely for this reason, the South is also a deep well of resistance, struggle, and freedom movements. If we want to save the soul of America, we must look not only to states generally but to Southern states in particular. North Carolina is the one I know best.

Finally, I must say from the beginning that although this book is political, it is not simply that. As I’ve already noted, I am a preacher. In some progressive circles this makes me immediately suspect. Not long ago I was a guest on Real Time with Bill Maher, with one of America’s most prominent atheists. Wearing my clerical collar, I realized that I stood out among his guests. So I decided to announce to Bill that I, too, am an atheist. He seemed taken aback, so I explained that if we were talking about the God who hates poor people, immigrants, and gay folks, I don’t believe in that God either. Sometimes it helps to clarify our language.

As much as the human being is a political animal, I know that each of us is also a spiritual being. We have learned in our work in North Carolina that, whatever our religious traditions, we cannot come together to work for the common good by ignoring our deepest values. Rather, we grow stronger in our work together as we embrace those things we most deeply believe, standing together where our values unite us and learning to respect one another where our traditions differ. We cannot let narrow religious forces highjack our moral vocabulary, forces who speak loudly about things God says little about while saying so little about issues that are at the heart of all our religious traditions: truth, justice, love, and mercy. The movement we have witnessed—the movement we most need—is a moral movement.

I don’t say this just because I believe it (though I do). I say it because I’ve seen it. Right here in North Carolina. Right here at home.

Ultimately, this is a book about how a moral movement can come home to where you are, exposing twenty-first-century injustice and giving us a shared vision for a Third Reconstruction to save the soul of America. Anything less, I fear, will mean the self-destruction of our nation. Amidst the din of those who incite old fears by saying it is time to “take back” America, a moral movement has arisen to insist that we must move forward together, not one step back. The Reconstruction we are engaged in aims for nothing less than liberty and justice for all. Whoever you are, this book is for you because it is the story of how, when we all get together, we can become something greater than the sum of our fears.

Excerpted from "The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement" by Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.

By Rev. William J. Barber II with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

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