Thousands marched through downtown Raleigh on Saturday, singing, chanting and continuing to fight for the expansion of Medicaid in North Carolina, more money for public schools, a higher minimum wage and voting rights.
For nine years, the NAACP has organized a “Mass Moral March on Raleigh,” bringing together a coalition of groups to put forward a legislative agenda ending a week of themed demonstrations in the N.C. Legislative Building.
The crowds have grown through the years, with sharp increases in the past several marches as the political power in the N.C. General Assembly and governor’s office switched from Democrat to Republican.
Last year, while North Carolina was in the national spotlight as a testing ground for conservative tax policies, deregulation and social-program cutbacks, buses filled with critics of such policies came from outside the state to march.
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The crowd on Saturday was sparser but filled two city blocks in the capital city downtown – from the edge of the Capitol lawn south toward the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts.
Raleigh police no longer give crowd-size estimates for such events, but at the peak of the march an estimated several thousand people stood shoulder to shoulder in the two-block area.
They cheered for speakers advocating repeals of a 2013 election-law overhaul that reduced the number of days people could vote early and required voters to show photo identification starting in 2016.
Zuri Norman, a football player at Fayetteville State University and a member of the NAACP chapter there, was in the crowd handing out information.
“I feel like black lives matter,” Norman said. “Tuition is going up at my school every year. We need to change that. We need to be able to use our student IDs to vote.”
Norman, who hails from Detroit but goes home between semesters to Columbia, S.C., said he does not have a North Carolina driver’s license and would have to get an ID card to be able to vote in Fayetteville.
Claude Pope, head of the North Carolina Republican Party, said Saturday that he thought the marchers were focusing their protests toward the wrong party.
“We respect the right of any group to protest,” Pope said. “But probably with these folks, most of the protesters should probably be directed at the Democratic Party who messed this state up for 100 years. The Republicans are fixing them and setting the state in the right direction.”
Beth Plaisted, a Cary resident who works at Child Care Services, attended the march Saturday as she had in previous years. Issues that pulled her out on the chilly morning with below-freezing temperatures included teacher pay, worker rights and Medicare expansion.
Republicans who were largely victorious at the ballot boxes in North Carolina in 2014 – with Thom Tillis, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate seat ousting incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan – have described the protesters as partisans unwilling to accept election results.
Plaisted disagreed with that assessment.
“I feel like every social movement has a history,” Plaisted said. “We’re still working. We’re not going to stop.”
Vivian Brenner, a Matthews resident, came with her husband to Raleigh on Saturday to show her support for the “Moral Monday” movement that has spread from North Carolina to other states.
She was aware that since 2013, when more than 900 people were arrested protesting the legislative agenda, election results have not depicted the same outrage over new laws and policies that she and others expressed.
“I think gerrymandering has a lot to do with that,” Brenner said. “They’ve got it rigged to win.”
The Rev. William J. Barber II, head of the North Carolina NAACP and the chief architect of the Moral Monday protests and the annual marches to the legislature, said a movement cannot be judged by election results.
He points out that after the protests, Gov. Pat McCrory has talked about expanding Medicaid, though some legislators remain opposed.
Lawmakers adopted a plan to increase teacher pay after the 2013 protests, but demonstrators say it stopped far short of the increases they had hoped for.
The speeches on Saturday not only focused on North Carolina’s future but highlighted the past, with mentions of Selma and the civil rights movement.
The marchers also noted that Saturday was Valentine’s Day, “a day,” they said, “to express love” and fight laws and policies that they contend are intended to discriminate against gay families and immigrants in this country illegally.
With many different issues bringing them together, marchers left on Saturday vowing to return.
“It’s never been about the elections,” said Ruby Sinreich, a Durham resident. “In February, it’s not about elections. It’s critically important to keep the Moral Monday movement going.”