CHAPEL HILL — An estimated 500 people squeezed into a corner of Franklin Street on Wednesday to criticize the Republican state agenda and celebrate the 50th anniversary of a landmark civil rights speech.
Carrboro resident Braxton Foushee said he watched on television in 1963 as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Then a 21-year-old N.C. Memorial Hospital employee, Foushee said he would have been in Washington, D.C., but couldn’t find someone to work his shift.
“We watched it on TV, and when King spoke, it just made chills run down my back, because I knew it was going to be out of this world,” he said. “We were working, but everybody was looking at the TV.”
That speech was not the end but a beginning, Jenn Frye, associate director of the nonprofit voter group Democracy NC, told the crowd in downtown Chapel Hill. Police closed one lane of rush-hour traffic when people crowding Peace and Justice Plaza spilled onto the street.
The NAACP-sponsored “Taking the Dream Home to Chapel Hill” rally was held at the same time as rallies in each of the state’s 13 congressional districts. The local event also recognized local protesters who were among the nearly 900 state residents arrested at this summer’s “Moral Monday” demonstrations in Raleigh.
Frye said the fight for justice and equality this time is with the Republicans leading the General Assembly. This is a new South, where everyone should have jobs, education and value, she said.
Gov. Pat McCrory signed a new voter ID law that requires voters to have a state-issued ID, shortens early voting by a week and ends same-day voter registration, among other changes. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice have filed a lawsuit challenging the law.
The changes follow a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that struck down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The law enforced voter equality by requiring states with a history of racial bias to get the federal government’s approval of any voting law changes. The law applied to 40 of North Carolina’s 100 counties.
Republicans said the law would prevent voter fraud and restore faith in elections. It closed a historic legislative session when the party controlled both houses and the governor’s mansion for the first time in more than a century. It also capped sweeping changes that protesters said would have a damaging effect on the state’s environment, economic welfare and education.
Many at the rally wore red ribbons around their arms to support teachers and schools. Culbreth Middle School teacher Chuck Hennessy said Republicans spent more time making sure armed guards could be in schools than ensuring children could get a quality education.
“Excellence does not dribble from the bottom to the top. They have to show us leadership in Raleigh,” he said.
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said residents have an obligation to share the need for legislative change with the rest of the state and help progressive candidates get elected to office.
“We’ve gotta start sending thinkers. We’ve got to start sending people who care, people who reflect the experiences of North Carolinians,” he said.