Protests are ‘a cry from America’s moral center’

Diverse crowd marches in Raleigh to champion civil rights, healthcare and immigration at HKonJ People’s Assembly

Video: Thousands descend on downtown Raleigh for the annual HKonJ march on Saturday, February 11, 2017.
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Video: Thousands descend on downtown Raleigh for the annual HKonJ march on Saturday, February 11, 2017.

On Saturday, Feb. 11, tens of thousands of people joined the Moral March on Raleigh to demonstrate our commitment to resist extremism in America at both the state and federal level. In this season of broad-based and unprecedented protest against an administration with historically low approval ratings, it has become harder to dismiss North Carolina’s Moral March as whining from “the left.” And those who do so miss both the crisis we face as a nation and the hope that moral fusion movements offer. In 2017, resistance isn’t about left or right, but about right versus wrong.

The state-based coalition of moral leaders and issue-based advocacy groups who organized this year’s Moral March first came together in 2006, when Democrats were in power in North Carolina. Our fusion coalition – many faiths and belief systems, and all the hues of the human rainbow – built power by successfully advocating for an expansion of voting rights and educating poor and working people about issues that directly impact them. In 2010, we experienced a backlash against our growing political power. Extremists hijacked our state’s Republican Party and took control of all three branches of government by using the same combination of corporate funding and fear-based populism that fueled the Trump campaign.

What is happening in Washington, D.C., now is what happened in Raleigh four years ago. But we have learned in North Carolina how a morally-grounded fusion coalition can resist this kind of extremism in the 21st century by inviting Democrats, Independents and true conservatives to unite around a moral agenda and fight back in the streets, in the courts and at the ballot box.

Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of North Carolina’s Republican Party, dismissed last weekend’s Moral March as “far left,” insisting that “the people” spoke last November, when North Carolina’s electoral votes went to Donald Trump, a former New York City Democrat who swept the South in a wave of 21st-century nativist populism. Woodhouse failed to mention that his party lost control of both the executive and judicial branches of North Carolina’s government in the same election, and that a federal court has ordered special elections in 2017 to reconstitute the racially gerrymandered legislative branch. Even if “the people” went for a Trump they didn’t know, they weren’t naive enough to back the extremism of the N.C. GOP, whom they did know.

On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” North Carolina’s former Republican governor, Pat McCrory, who lost his re-election bid in November, admitted that he was pushed by GOP extremists to defend legislation that the majority of North Carolinians did not support. But rather than challenge Woodhouse, McCrory offered his dubious wisdom to Democrats, lest they be pulled from the center by their left wing.

Both Woodhouse and McCrory refuse to acknowledge that resistance to extremism, which hurts poor people and threatens democracy itself, is not a tug from the left wing but a cry from America’s moral center. My grandfather, like almost every black person in the South for a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, was a Republican. I know the values of true conservatives. But when Strom Thurmond led the segregationist Dixiecrats into the Republican Party in 1968, black folks in the South learned what an extremist take-over looks like. The tea party activists who hijacked the GOP and fueled Trump’s birther-ism lies do not represent the party of Lincoln. Instead they have nationalized the politics of George Wallace.

A Methodist Sunday School superintendent and former governor of Alabama, Wallace modeled the mixture of populism, white nationalism and nativist fear that Trump has made the hallmark of his brand. Wallace rose to national prominence after his infamous 1963 “stand in the schoolhouse door” charade to oppose the integration of Alabama. But he had first turned to racial demagoguery after his 1958 gubernatorial loss in Alabama.

Wallace knitted together the threads of white nationalism and xenophobia and appealed to white people’s deepest fears, equating social change with moral corruption. In 1968, he ran for president as an Independent, drawing crowds to equal a 2016 Trump rally, even at Madison Square Garden. His appeal to white racial uneasiness, fear and rage proved potent. In late September, Wallace led both the Democratic and Republican nominees in six Southern states and half of the men and 40 percent of the women in Dixie pledged to vote for him.

But Richard Nixon made a late bid for Wallace voters, mimicking Wallace’s rhetoric on “forced bussing” and “law and order.” Winning four Southern states and losing others by statistically insignificant margins, Wallace was the only real threat to Nixon.

With the rise of interracial coalitions in the South, Wallace’s stand on the wrong side of the moral struggle for civil rights dimmed his hopes for national office. But historian Dan T. Carter, noting Wallace’s impact on the Republican Party, calls the Alabama extremist “the most influential loser in 20th century American politics.”

Beginning in the pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which Wallace could see from his office in the Alabama state house, Dr. Martin Luther King framed the state-based struggle for democratic values in the South not in partisan political terms but in principled moral language. From civil rights to voting rights to a national poor people’s campaign in 1967-68, the fusion coalition that King spoke for connected local movements to challenge the heart of the nation in the 1960s. It wasn’t a movement of the “far left,” but a moral movement, calling America to live out the deepest commitments of her creed. And it was a movement that won – not a permanent victory but the major issues of its day.

Half a century later, Americans of every party must come to terms with the fact that we face a moral crisis. Whatever your philosophy on tax reform and the economy, the extremism of George Wallace now controls the White House, in addition to a majority of our state houses. Conservatives within the Republican Party have offered little resistance, and Democrats lack the political power to stem the tide of extremism. History and experience teach us that a moral movement of nonviolent resistance is our best hope for the future of democracy. The tens of thousands marching last Saturday in Raleigh are a sign that the people are ready to offer the leadership we most need.

Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, is president of the North Carolina NAACP and convener of the Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) Peoples Assembly Coalition, a broad alliance of more than 140 progressive organizations.