Op-Ed

In NC, a fight for justice on the same scale as Selma

The 2014 March on Raleigh
The 2014 March on Raleigh cliddy@newsobserver.com

The nation has already begun to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, when hundreds of protesters, black and white, joined together to demand that Alabama enforce the 15th Amendment of the Constitution by granting African-Americans their right to vote.

As dramatized in Ava DuVernay's powerful film "Selma," months after police savagely beat marchers during the first of these three demonstrations, Congress moved to pass the Civil Rights Movement's crown jewel, the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

As the nation continues to remember the legacy of Selma, we must turn our eyes to North Carolina - where the 21st century fight for justice and democracy is being waged.

In recent years, North Carolina lawmakers have passed regressive policies reminiscent of 1960s Selma. They have seized every opportunity to undermine the economic mobility of poor and working people by cutting the Earned Income Tax credit and slashing unemployment benefits, blocking access to healthcare for hundreds of thousands by rejecting Medicaid expansion, cutting funding from education to provide private school vouchers and creating a spate of vicious barriers to the ballot.

This extreme public policy has not gone unanswered. A mass movement, built on the strength of a decade of grassroots organizing and coalition building, has persistently pushed back in the long tradition of nonviolent direct action.

More than 900 North Carolinians have engaged in civil disobedience during weekly "Moral Monday" demonstrations, gathering inside the Capitol and giving testimony on the violations of our rights. For holding lawmakers accountable, these hundreds of people - black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American; Democrat, Republican and independent; people of faith and nonbelievers; gay and straight; students, parents and retirees - were arrested and jailed.

In a mass march convened last year by the Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) People's Coalition - an alliance of more than 160 state organizations - thousands of people from across North Carolina participated in the largest protest gathering in the South since the Selma to Montgomery marches.

On Saturday, we will march again.

We gather in Raleigh on Valentine's Day - for the Moral March for Love and Justice - with renewed energy, propelled by the successes we have seen in the past year and a strong determination to keep fighting until justice rolls down like waters. Among other victories, we've seen a pay increase for public school teachers. A judge ruled in our favor by blocking the unconstitutional school voucher program. Some state officials, including Gov. Pat McCrory, are backpedaling from their hardline stance against Medicaid expansion. And Raleigh's District Attorney dismissed the charges against 941 protesters who were arrested for their acts of civil disobedience inside the General Assembly.

As we head to court this July to challenge North Carolina's voter-suppression law, we are confident for another win. Yet even with these triumphs, we know that we are faced with what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized as the "fierce urgency of now." Our coalition will keep fighting in the legislature, the courts and the streets.

If we continue steadfastly in a powerful moral movement to hold elected leaders accountable, we can restore the heart of politics and democracy in North Carolina. The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones - the place where our knowledge can become more fully human. We can never waver on these matters of moral principle, including economic justice through labor rights and fair living wages, equal education and funding for quality public schools, access to health care and the promise of a clean planet.

Tantamount to our mission, we fight for equal voting rights. Just as hundreds marched in Selma 50 years ago for a voice in our democracy, in the face of North Carolina's attempts to suppress the vote in the 21st century version of Jim Crow, we will keep marching to affirm all people's right to the ballot. This is our Selma, and if they stood and fought then, so must we now.

Fifty years ago, marchers did not merely move their feet from Selma to Montgomery - they moved a nation toward greater equity. This week's Moral March for Love and Justice is more than a moment, but a sustained movement in the pursuit of justice for all. Treading in the footsteps of those before us, we have inherited this moral obligation to defend the values embedded in our state and federal constitutions, marching forward together toward the promise of a more just democracy. We won't take one step back.

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II is president of the North Carolina State Conference NAACP. He serves as convener of the Forward Together Moral Movement and the HKonJ People's Assembly.

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