RALEIGH – On July 8, I traveled from Charlotte to Raleigh to attend the Moral Monday protests for the first time. Even though I had organized the trip, I was the only African-American in our group of five. None of the blacks I asked to join me were able to attend for a variety of reasons. When the crowds began filling Halifax Mall near the state legislative building, the ratio of whites to blacks was similar.
It reminded me of the crowds at a blues concert. With the exception of the people on stage, I was among the few blacks in attendance.
The rallies are organized and spearheaded by Rev. William Barber who heads the North Carolina NAACP. Black ministers and leaders from around the state are also in attendance. However, as the protests marked their third month and continue to garner national media attention, rank-and-file African-Americans are largely missing in action from the state’s most important civil rights battle in decades.
Earlier this year, Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, derisively labeled the protesters “mostly white, angry, aged former hippies” – as if that makes their grievances any less legitimate. But he is right about the racial make-up. In a crowd of thousands of all ages and backgrounds, blacks accounted for no more than 20 percent. This may be due in part to the fact that the protests begin at mid-afternoon on a weekday when many African-Americans are at work.
Thirty-year-old Birnettiah Killend, an African-American from Durham, who came to attend the protests, says the crowd looked pretty much like she expected.
“Ultimately, I wasn’t surprised that it was so white because minorities have endured this kind of mistreatment for so long they have become desensitized and have to be jarred into action,” she says. “But now our misery has joined the ranks of others and whites have joined the struggle.”
Killend had spent three years working for Planned Parenthood in Charlotte and attended the Moral Mondays protest for the first time after the legislature voted to enact restrictions that could force abortion clinics to close.
The protests began in response to a slew of bills from the Republican-controlled General Assembly, many of which will adversely greatly impact minorities and the poor. They have repealed the Racial Justice Act which allowed condemned convicts to use statistical analysis to argue that race played a role in their sentencing. In addition to enacting voter ID laws, they plan to eliminate early voting and same day voter registration. They have passed legislation to reduce the amount and duration of unemployment compensation, cut off federal benefits for 70,000 of the long-term unemployed and drop thousands of poor children from preschool. There are also proposals to remove the cap on classroom size, cut teacher pay and divert $90 million from cash-strapped public schools to private and religious schools over the next two years.
To date, nearly 700 people have been arrested and charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct and failure to disperse on command.
The John W. Pope Civitas Institute, a conservative think tank funded primarily by the family foundation of Art Pope, the governor’s budget director, posted an online database of the arrestees, including age, race, employment and hometown. Instead of supporting the governor’s claim that the crowd was largely outsiders, the database showed that 98 percent of those arrested are from North Carolina. It also showed that most are Democrats, 27 percent work in education and only 15 percent are unemployed.
Judging by the mugshots posted, the vast majority of those being carted off to jail are also white.
“African-Americans have a history of encountering police brutality,” says Killend. “But there is definitely an interest in the cause. Even if they’re not there continually, they support they support what’s going on.”
The weekly protests show no sign of abating. Last week, Barber challenged everyone in the crowd to register at least 50 new voters and bring more supporters to the rallies. He also announced plans to organize a trip to DC for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Only time will tell if African Americans will turn in greater numbers.