Like thousands of North Carolinians, I marched at HKonJ a couple of weeks ago. Also like thousands of others, I’ve done it many times. I look forward to it for months. Often, I’m one in a long list of speakers leading up to an inspiring and fiery address by the Rev. William Barber. When Barber brings the word, no soul goes unstirred.
My favorite spot is not on the stage. I shoot for the middle of Fayetteville Street, a few hundred yards from the platform. I’m not usually one for crowds. But, for me, HKonJ is the exception. A feeling that God’s children are in assembly seeps into the pores. Steps are lightened. Hearts seem to merge. Songs erupt unplanned. The affection of sisters and brothers spills over. The shuttered courage of old struggles reappears. A faith in new victories ignites. I knocked on doors for Jesse Jackson when I was young. But HKonJ is rainbow.
There is something thrilling about inclusion. About the outstretched hand, the inter-locked arm, the atypical embrace. Faces are young, old and in between. The strong, the ailing, the angry, the threatened, the loving. Baby strollers parade alongside senior scooters. Families abound. Marchers are black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, transgender, preachers, priests, nuns, rabbis, imams, rich, poor, organized and free-wheeling. Women’s rights advocates, labor folks, ACLU-types, greens, teachers and overall do-gooders abound.
Those consistently derided in Republican presidential campaigns are in strong supply. Undocumented immigrants, dreamers and deportation opponents speak to the cheering throng in Spanish. Heroic and loving young Muslims reveal their dreams, and their terrors, from the microphone. Low-income Tar Heels, kicked off Medicaid, paint portraits of the consequences. Others, with bold hearts and less-abled bodies, lift their banners high. There is no mocking this day. Campus and community activists chant “black lives matter” to a gathering that believes it true. It is the opposite of a Trump rally. Opposite and antidote.
Still, it’s not a political meeting in the traditional sense. No candidates or office holders are allowed on stage. A few politicians disappear into the audience, but most, of both parties, don’t attend. Their worlds seem small and bloodless compared with the energized and ennobling movement. Most politicos wouldn’t know a people’s crusade if it bit them in the … arm. They run to be something, not to do it.
A bevy of Sanders acolytes spread out to work the crowd. Now I like Bernie Sanders. I’m all for him. But his followers soon learn that partisan electioneering is not to occur here. This is higher ground. And North Carolinians don’t need to take instruction on organizing for justice.
Of all the variegated masses, I’m most taken with the young ones. They’re clear-eyed, fearless, boundless in enthusiasm, skeptical of the old wine, modestly disinterested in the instruction of their elders, sick to death of my generation’s divisions and unwilling to believe it’s impossible to remake the world. Their unfolding is more powerful than Raleigh or Washington.
They can’t imagine defining themselves by disparaging gay people or immigrants. They don’t believe some should starve to make wealthy folks feel whole. Their lives are plugged in, multi-racial, multi-cultural, global, curious, sometimes gender bending, always fiercely integrative. They love America, but they don’t think we’re the world’s exceptional people. We’ve got our pros and our cons, like everybody else. The job’s not done.
They can’t fathom a Republican primary where candidates compete by proving how enthusiastically they seek a return to the 1950s. They think the ’50s are over. And well interred. But they also don’t see why a former secretary of state insists it’s admirable and pragmatic to perpetually say one thing and do exactly the opposite. Nor do they think being averse to lying makes them sexist. If we’re so special, they wonder, how’d we come to this?
And in North Carolina these unbowed mean that the McCrory, Berger, Tillis and Burr crowd ultimately don’t stand a prayer. Old, wealthy, male, Christian, straight, white people’s government isn’t long for this earth, or at least this neck of the woods. It may have a year, or a decade, depending on the brutality and the blowback of the struggle. But it dies. No wonder the General Assembly’s in a rush. The fatal clock ticks.
These young marchers announce the “sound of freedom calling, the sound of the old ways falling,” as Phil Ochs wrote. “You can hear it if you try.”
The sound of freedom calling. Say glory.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.