North Carolina activists draw inspiration from 1963 March on Washington

theGRIO REPORT - A Moral Monday gathering in Charlotte this week channeled sights and sounds of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

CHARLOTTE – A Moral Monday gathering in Charlotte this week channeled sights and sounds of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom 50 years ago.

As the sun broke through the clouds in the late afternoon, more than 2,000 stood and sat, sang and waved signs, listened to speakers, and wondered if some gains of the civil rights movement are slipping away in North Carolina.

It was a dress rehearsal for those planning to make the trip to Washington for Saturday’s commemoration of the historic march.

Linda Bain, listening on Monday, said she planned to travel from Charlotte to Washington by bus for Saturday’s events, meeting friends from New York City, where the retired educator lived before her move south this year. She missed the first march.

“I was a little too young,” she said. “I’m feeling more and more compelled to be there,” Bain said, “because of what’s going on here in North Carolina and around the country.”

The crowd in Charlotte on Monday was as least as diverse as the one in Washington 50 years ago, in race, age and cause.

The signs carried strong messages on a range of issues: “Education Is America’s 1st Line of Defense,” “End Mass Incarceration! Support Mentoring,” “Keep our families together,” “Stand Up for Choice,” “Why deny Medicaid for struggling NC families?” and “Guns in bars and playgrounds – seriously!”

The mood was far from glum, with protesters perhaps buoyed by the weekly Moral Monday demonstrations that preceded this one at the state capital of Raleigh. While the General Assembly was in session, thousands showed up weekly with more than 900 arrests, in protest over a wave of conservative economic and social proposals. The rallies are continuing across the state.

State Sen. Malcolm Graham, a Democrat, said the lesson is to vote in every election. “If people will lead, leaders will follow.” Graham said people want moderation. “As a state, we have tarnished our brand, and it only took six months.”

On Monday, the unifying issue, one that recalled 1960s efforts, was voting rights, with Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and the Republican legislature’s sweeping election and voting overhaul a galvanizing force and rallying cry. “Show me the fraud! Our voting system does not need to be fixed,” read one sign, joined by others: “NC, first in flight, last in rights,” a takeoff on a state point of pride, and “Let my people vote,” which borrowed the moral and religious tone of the civil rights movement, then and now. Many signs quoted Scripture and admonitions to care for others, with one, “Y’all act like camels can fit through eyes of needles,” recalling Jesus’ teaching that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Bain said, “So many people are affected and disenfranchised” by the new voting   law, which, among a long list of provisions, adds strict voter ID requirements, shortens early voting by a week, ends pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-old voters who will be 18 on election day, eliminates same-day voter registration, Sunday voting and straight-ticket voting, prohibits university students from using their college IDs, prohibits paid voter registration drives and increases the number of poll watchers who can challenge a voter’s eligibility.

“It’s knowing the history of voting rights in this country and seeing all of that wiped away by the stroke of a pen by the Supreme Court – for which I have lost so much respect – and Gov. McCrory,” said Bain.

Kojo Nantambu, president of the Charlotte chapter of the NAACP, led the rally with a slogan repeated by a roster of speakers and musical performers: “Forward together – not one step back.” His group is sponsoring a bus to the Washington march, leaving at midnight and returning that night, charging $60 per person.

“To me it’s very debilitating, painful to know after so many people have shed their blood, so many people have died, struggled and sacrificed to bring true equality to this country and live up to Martin Luther King’s message,” that his words are not being honored, Nantambu told theGrio. He said he finds hope in the diversity of the crowd. “Dr. King tried to bring people together, groups from everywhere, all races, all faiths, fighting for the rights of all people, fighting for jobs, good health care — equal rights in every aspect of our lives. That’s what we’re doing right now.”

It’s not dogs and water hoses, but “a more sophisticated type of violence,” he said. “It’s by the word of the law.”

In an effort to bring a moral imperative to the movement, the NAACP is encouraging religious leaders to preach from a “Forward Together Lectionary Series,” linking policy to social justice. “Vote, vote, vote,” was the message of keynote speaker the Rev. Dwayne Walker of Little A.M.E. Zion Church.

The League of Women Voters North Carolina was represented at the rally by member June White, 71, proud of her arrest at a Raleigh Moral Monday. White, a former school system speech pathologist who lives in Charlotte, described herself as a “retired active voter.”

Sandra Faison, 63, said she was “so afraid of the bills trying to be passed – Medicaid, Medicare.” On photo ID restrictions for voting, she said, “I have an aunt who’s 102, and she doesn’t have a birth certificate. It’s in her Bible.” Faison leaned on her walker as she held a sign: “Hands off our bodies, hands off our ballots.”

For those who want to mark the event that inspired the mood of current dissent in North Carolina but can’t make the trip, there will be rallies in the state on Saturday and on Aug. 28, the exact date of the 1963 march.

Faison traveled to Raleigh for a protest – “I had a stroke there,” she said. Because of failing health, she won’t be making the trip to Washington this weekend. Still, she said, “I’ll be there in spirit.”

Follow Mary on Twitter @mcurtisnc3