Upwards of 80,000 people flocked to North Carolina's state capitol for the Moral March on Raleigh on Saturday, Feb. 8. The passion and energy of the peaceful, yet tenacious, crowd that gathered to hold the N.C. state legislature accountable for its regressive policies warmed an otherwise chilly day. In fact, as the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the United Church of Christ, said, it felt like there was a fire raging throughout the state.
"Linda [Jaramillo] always wants to go where there's fire and bring some wood to put on it," said Black, who attended the event with the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, the UCC's executive minister for Justice and Witness Ministries, and the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, the UCC's executive minister for Local Church Ministries. "There is fire in North Carolina."
The day began with a prayer service with clergy from the UCC and other denominations outside of the N.C. State Legislative Building. Marchers then gathered at Shaw University, the South's oldest historically black university, for a pre-march program that included speakers and musical performances, during which more than 100 buses dropped off participants from North Carolina and beyond.
The diverse crowd then marched six blocks to the N.C. State Capitol Building for the 90-minute People's Assembly, which included brief presentations from advocates fighting for causes such as the reinstatement of unemployment benefits and expansion of Medicaid, immigration reform, women's reproductive rights, and an overhaul of the N.C. public school system – just a handful of the issues speakers said have been negatively impacted by laws passed by the N.C. General Assembly last year.
In 2013, the N.C. General Assembly voted to deny emergency unemployment benefits to 170,000 North Carolina residents; voted against an expansion of Medicaid and affordable health care for 500,000 North Carolinians; revised the tax code to raise the burden on poor and working-class families while easing it for the state's wealthiest 11 percent and corporations; cut funding from public education; repealed the Racial Justice Act; and passed a voter suppression law that makes it harder for minorities, the elderly and students to vote.
"What we are challenging is extremism that takes us down a road to destruction," said the Rev. William J. Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister. "We have fought too long for extremists to take our rights away.
"This is not just a moment, it is indeed a movement," added Barber, who convened the event and several like it in 2013. "We didn't do this to then just go home. We didn't come from all over North Carolina to accept anything less than a better state."
Sandy Sorenson, director of the UCC's Washington, D.C., office, also attended the Moral March on Raleigh. While she was shocked and saddened by some of the statistics she learned – such as North Carolina public schools ranking No. 48 in the nation and Greensboro, N.C., having the country's second highest percentage of hungry children – she was also inspired by the number of people who gathered to demand the much-needed change and hopes it catches on in other places.
"It was powerful, it was energizing, and it was inspiring, and I really hope that the energy, the organizing and the coalition building is picked up and carried on throughout the country, especially in this mid-term election year," said Sorenson. "I'm really excited by the possibilities of organizing at the intersection of so many issues that is happening here and I would love to see that take fire and spread around the country."
The march ended with a news conference where denominational leaders, including Black and the Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, showed their support for Barber and expressed why they were compelled to take part in the Moral March on Raleigh.
"Justice is at the core of our understanding of what the gospel calls us to do," said Black. "We know we've inherited a struggle that's been going on for a long time, and we're committed as a church to be part of this struggle."
"This is about human dignity, and we're in it for the long haul," Morales said, with tears in his eyes. "I'm here because if I couldn't answer this call, I should take off this stole and hang it up."
The rally marked the eighth annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street (abbreviated to the acronym HKonJ in the region) gathering, which have been held on the second Saturday in February since 2006. This year's Moral March on Raleigh built upon the momentum created by the Moral Mondays rallies that took place in 2013, as discontent with the N.C. state government grew. Last year's 13 Moral Mondays marches in Raleigh led to almost 1,000 arrests for civil disobedience. There were 23 more Moral Mondays events held in other parts of the state.
The Moral March on Raleigh, along with HKonJ and Moral Mondays, were the vision of Barber, who has continued to campaign for the cause throughout the state of North Carolina, and has recently inspired similar events in Georgia and South Carolina.
"A picture speaks 80,000 words," Barber said, making reference to the number of Moral March participants. "There is nothing much else I can say except this is just the beginning."