Thousands brave rain to support HKonJ march in downtown Raleigh

A little rain didn’t stop thousands from gathering in downtown Raleigh on Saturday morning for the state NAACP’s annual march and rallying cry for the year ahead.

One of the main focuses of this year’s HKonJ Assembly, which stands for Historic Thousands on Jones Street, was protecting voting rights and putting an end to gerrymandering.

That’s the issue that brought Arlene Thomas from Burlington.

“I’ve always been apolitical,” Thomas said. “But the 2016 election turned this 68-year-old into an activist.”

Thomas said she attended the march last year as well.

“I had a blast. It was wonderful weather and it made my daughter, who is 30, so proud,” she said.

“You just can’t sit at home and complain,” Thomas said. “Everybody deserves the right to vote, not just the ones they want to vote. Gerrymandering should be illegal – for any party.”

Thomas’ thoughts were echoed by a number of speakers throughout the day, including the Rev. Portia Rochelle of Raleigh.

“We do not know what our districts look like, but we do know what democracy looks like ... meet us at the ballot box,” Rochelle told early gatherers. “It is time to do right.”

The star speaker was the Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, the new president of the N.C. NAACP.

At an early rally in front of the N.C. Memorial Auditorium, Spearman said the turnout in the rain showed a “proven commitment to the movement and to the third reconstruction.”

Spearman lauded the large contingent of young people involved in this year’s march, saying youth represent our “hopes and dreams for today.”

This year the rally drew people worried about the Trump administration’s cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The program gave young immigrants in this country illegally a temporary reprieve from deportation while providing an an opportunity to get work permits, driver’s licenses and other documents that allow them to live productive lives in a country they consider home.

One of the youngest speakers at the rally was Jeymi Dubon of Durham, a DACA recipient who came to the U.S. with her parents from Honduras.

Dubon, a high school senior who is set to graduate, and will be the first in her family to do so, has been accepted into college. But because of her immigration status, Dubon would have to pay out-of-state tuition in North Carolina, which she can’t afford.

“America and North Carolina are all I have known,” Dubon told the crowd. “We are not so much different from each other. We have a dream, but I can’t accomplish mine without your help.”

Elizabeth Serrano, an Appalachian State University freshman from Hendersonville attending the rally with a group from the ASU College Democrats, said she came to Raleigh to support DACA recipients.

“No family should be torn apart,” Serrano said. “I’m the daughter of an immigrant and I’m proud of that.”

At the other end of the age spectrum, a local chapter of an international group called The Raging Grannies sang about HKonJ and social issues. “We won’t shut up, we will persist till they see how wrong they’ve been,” they sang. “And we’ll fight them in the courts and in the streets until we win.”

Dallas Woodhouse, president of the N.C. GOP, released a statement in response to the event on his Facebook page:

“It is disappointing that the speakers at this democrat party rally could not celebrate the best North Carolina economy in two decades, the lowest black unemployment ever recorded, and record investments in public education including the highest teacher pay raises the state has ever seen. It would be helpful if these democrats could celebrate the current success of their fellow citizens.”

The Rev. William J. Barber II, former president of the state NAACP and founder of the National Poor People’s Campaign, was scheduled to speak but did not attend because he was ill with flu-like symptoms. He sent a message of support remotely.

Brooke Cain: 919-829-4579, @brookecain