Moral Mondays: the emergence and dynamics of a growing mass human rights movement

By on January 30, 2014
Moral Mondays. Hundreds pack rotunda inside NC General Assembly; 151 are arrested.Photo: NC Student Power Union

Moral Mondays. Hundreds pack rotunda inside NC General Assembly; 151 are arrested.
Photo: NC Student Power Union

Introduction

The Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina that is mobilizing thousands to speak out against the legislative attacks on Black, working-class and poor people throughout the state is being talked about across the country, as it expands to other cities.

Moral Mondays in North Carolina have a particular history that needs to be understood to recognize its political aims and the dynamics in moving it forward as a mass campaign and human rights social movement. Broad campaigns and movements for social justice have twists and turns that are influenced by the strength and bases of the class and political forces acting within them.

The critiques of social movements by many progressives too often rely on what’s written by the mainstream media without any contact with left and progressive forces which are active in those social movements. They also tend to analyze social movements as if there is only one permanent, leading political tendency and that other tendencies are merely tailing it and have no internal struggle, strategy and independent initiatives. The history of the Civil Rights Movement — where Dr. King was the mass spokesperson — points out the internal dynamics that exist within mass movements.

Yes.  There are many who see the Moral Mondays campaign as mainly a struggle against Republican Party control of the state Legislature, and as part of an electoral strategy to prepare a Democratic Party base for the next state and national elections. This is clearly one of the strong tendencies, but it is not the only tendency active in shaping the direction of the Moral Mondays.

The unity-struggle-unity and independent initiative of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee is an example of the forces representing the most oppressed sectors of the Black masses which operated within the Civil Rights Movement and how they were able to influence its direction.

Historical background

Moral Mondays grew out of a People’s Assembly movement known as Historical Thousands on Jones Street (HKOJ) that was formed in February 2007. The Black masses are the social anchor of the HKOJ, even though its composition and program is broader.

The Rev. William Barber II, North Carolina state president of the NAACP, along with others engaged in struggles for social and economic justice and human rights, mobilized to convene a People’s Assembly in February 2007 where a 14-point program was developed, and the HKOJ coalition was formed, which included the 120 branches of the N.C. NAACP and 150 community, labor and social justice organizations.

Rev. Barber had been active in struggles around education, voting rights and other issues, mainly in the city of Goldsboro, where he lives and pastors his church. In 2002, he came out in support of the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union-UE Local 150, which was organizing at two of the city’s main employers of state mental health workers.  He spoke on the Goldsboro City Hall steps, lifting up the right to organize and collective bargaining.

As a leader of the Goldsboro branch of the N.C. NAACP, who actively supported labor and other Black, working-class and poor people’s struggles, Rev. Barber stood out as an emerging statewide leader capable of changing the largely inactive character of the majority of the N.C. NAACP branches. In 2006, with the help of progressive ministers and allies who were registered NAACP members, he was elected N.C. state president of the NAACP.

The HKOJ began holding annual mobilizations to the N.C. General Assembly each February, declaring it the People’s House and calling on legislators to implement the People’s Assembly program. Rev. Barber’s leadership and the HKOJ mobilizations began to radicalize and transform many of the 120 N.C. NAACP branches, and a large and active youth wing was recruited.

The HKOJ and its demands on the General Assembly began when the Democrats held the majority in the state Legislature. A ruling by the International Labor Organization (ILO), an agency of the United Nations, on a complaint filed by the UE-initiated International Worker Justice Campaign, found North Carolina was out of compliance with international conventions and treaties by denying public sector workers collective bargaining rights. Following the ruling, a bill was presented to the N.C. Legislature by an ally in the Democratic Party, calling for the repeal of the ban on collective bargaining rights for public sector workers.

Despite the Democratic Party having a majority, and that support for the bill was shown by organized labor and many community and social movement organizations, the bill never got out of a committee to make it to the floor for a vote by the General Assembly. It is clear to many in the Moral Mondays campaign that the Democratic Party is not in favor of empowering the working class against the forces of capital that largely dictate and shape the policies of the state.

Strategy

Moral Mondays have mobilized thousands to take away the moral high ground from the religious right — whose so-called “moral agenda” is racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic and divisive — and try to appeal mainly to the white working class. Moral Mondays have injected a liberation theology, creating a popular social ministry, which is radicalizing many faith leaders as part of the fightback against the neofascists that not only have a base in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress, but also a social base in the white working class, and have been growing and mobilizing during the Obama administration.

The next step in the moral argument will be to challenge the capitalist system as Dr. King did. Moral Mondays must embrace the demand for human rights, elevating the demands for social justice above the laws of U.S. imperialism. Human rights are international and inalienable and to demand them places the struggle in an international context.

An important part of the HKOJ strategy that has yet to be implemented is the building of local peoples assemblies in every major city and county to bring together social justice forces as a people’s movement infrastructure. This would help to build mass-based power to impact not only on the legislative and local political districts, but also to build organizations and solidarity, which would empower the people working in and relying on the social and economic institutions where state policies are carried out.

Tactics

The civil disobedience phase that resulted in the arrests of 941 Moral Monday activists was a very important tactic. Some viewed it as replicating a tactic of the Southern Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. King to give it a historical political connection. Others viewed it and engaged in it as a tactic to help raise the level of militancy of the mass struggles, as well as to expose the increasing repression and role of the state in pushing austerity policies, as it denies democratic and constitutional rights to people’s movements.

The trials of about 50 of the Moral Mondays arrestees have helped to expose the repressive role of the state. They showed how the police agencies were secretly coming into the Moral Mondays meetings and conducting surveillance, and how the court’s rulings were inconsistent and sought to divide and create confusion among the arrestees.

There was a struggle within the Moral Mondays campaign following the first court conviction. There was a call for Moral Mondays leaders and mobilizations to demand the dropping of charges against all Moral Mondays arrestees and the overturning of all convictions, in order to  highlight the struggle against the state’s criminalizing of the right to protest. However, the labor arrestees and their allies independently had to initiate the actual struggle around these demands, a struggle which needs to get stronger.

Moral Mondays have helped to create a statewide climate of mass fightback that can encourage and support local fightbacks led by local organizations and social movements. North Carolina is referred to as ground zero in the mass fightback against the right.

In generalizing that the attacks on the people are morally unconscionable in an effort to reflect the multiclass and multiracial breath of the Moral Mondays mobilizations, it is important not to downplay the racist and depression-level impacts that the cuts and policies are having on working-class Black and other people of color and women; how the media criminalize these disproportionately impacted communities, and why there is greater police brutality, government repression, vigilante violence against and mass incarceration of the people in and from these communities.

The Black Workers For Justice made a call at the “No More Trayvons” rallies it sponsored for people to come to the Moral Monday the following day with signs and banners demanding: “Justice For Trayvon Martin! and “Stop the War on Black America! A few hundred signs were distributed and held high by Black people, other people of color and many whites. There was an increase in the turnout of Black people at the Moral Monday following the court’s “not guilty” verdict of Trayvon’s murderer, George Zimmerman. As one radical minister said, Moral Mondays are a real opportunity to provide an anti-racist education to the large number of whites participating in them.

Tactics vary in the Moral Mondays movement, depending on the initiative of the organizations and movements participating. There was a Moral Mondays rally in Washington, N.C., a working-class city with a significant Black population, which opposed the closing of the Vidant Pungo hospital.  It had been recently purchased by the Vidant Medical Center, a regional monopoly serving 1.4 million people in 29 Black Belt counties in the northeastern part of the state.

An informational picket has also been launched at the stores of billionaire Tea Party and ALEC financer and N.C. State Budget Director Art Pope. These actions show the potential of the Moral Mondays in helping to expose the corporate class’s domination over state government, and the importance of challenging the capitalist economic base in the struggle against austerity.

Mobilizing labor’s rank and file

On Sept. 21, 2013, the Southern Workers Assembly (SWA) organized a labor fightback conference that brought together North Carolina rank-and-file members, and leaders and organizers of several unions and organizing campaigns to hammer out a “Workers Democracy Campaign” to raise the visibility of labor in the Moral Mondays movement, and to carry out and promote fightback at the workplace, as well as the right to organize. This conference took place following the arrests of the SWA Moral Mondays labor delegation and after the holding of a series of public hearings in three cities to bring forth their issues and demands.

Following the conference and the agitation by the SWA, we began to see the following rank-and-file actions: Teachers, parents and students held “walk-ins” at the public schools in cities across the state.  They wore red T-shirts to protest overcrowded class sizes, low teachers pay and the state budget cuts in education. United Food and Commercial Workers union members held a flash mob about poor working conditions and the right to organize inside of a Walmart store.  The Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) continues the struggle and demands that the R.J. Reynolds Corporation bargain with the tobacco workers organized by FLOC.  The N.C. Public Service Workers Union-UE 150, held rallies at mental health hospitals and delivered demands to the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources headquarters.  The fast-food workers campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour helped to popularize and energize the growing struggles for workers’ democracy and power that are beginning to converge.

This conscious effort to organize and raise the profile, voice and influence of labor is a growing aspect of the Moral Mondays movement. The SWA has been building a rank-and-file movement, which is trying to push labor activism and social movement unionism from the bottom up. Some national unions whose main memberships are outside of the South have contributed financial support, but most have not made a serious effort to mobilize their rank and file as part of and in support of Moral Mondays.

The passage of a resolution at the AFL-CIO National Convention in 2013 on organizing the South was partly influenced by the success of the Moral Mondays mobilizations of thousands in North Carolina, and it recognized its potential to expand southwide as another civil rights movement. Representatives and allies of the SWA played an important role in developing the language of the resolution and for introducing it into the national convention. An officer in the N.C. state AFL-CIO, who is active in Moral Mondays, led a workshop at the convention on organizing in the South

Toward building a national movement

Another weakness in the Moral Mondays has been the lack of demands on and criticisms of the federal government’s complicity with the dictates of big capital and the impact of this on the states. This is due, in part, to not wanting to appear to attack the Obama administration, especially when he is constantly under racist attack from the right. This is also a result of the lack of a popular understanding that Obama is the president of an imperialist state-dominated international economic system, and that the corporate powers demand that he protect this system. Helping to raise consciousness on this is one of the important tasks of the left within this movement.

The Supreme Court’s removal of Section IV of the Voting Rights Act, and the U.S. Congress’s shutdown of parts of the federal government has enabled many to begin to see the power and rule of the corporate class over the federal government, even under the Obama administration.

The spreading of Moral Mondays to other cities throughout the South and across the country will help to sharpen the connection between the struggles against corporate domination of the states and the struggles against corporate rule over the federal government. (http://tinyurl.com/p9e7pl7)

One of the important lessons and strengths of the Civil Rights Movement was that it did not allow the federal government to hide behind states’ rights as a way of refusing to deal with state laws throughout the South that collectively created Jim Crow, a racist system of national and colonial oppression. The Civil Rights Movement challenged those considered by some as allies, like Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, even though they signed an Executive Order, and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act.

The spreading of Moral Mondays is very important. However, these mobilizations must be led by people’s movement coalitions, democratically involving people’s organizations, and not run by a single organization, however sincere, dedicated and articulate the leader.

To connect and better coordinate the work of civil rights organizations in Mississippi in 1962, and to prevent a single organization from calling all the shots, the Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) was formed as a sort of a united front involving the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and SNCC.

The Moral Mondays radicalization of the clergy and their church members is very important. However, the emphasis on moral principles must not give the clergy an automatic right to leadership in Moral Mondays over those in social movements and mass organizations. That was the initial thinking at the founding of the SCLC in 1957.

It is also important not to misinterpret Dr. King’s call for the United States to have a moral conscience as simply meaning that the minds of those in legislative positions need to change. He was talking about the immorality of a system that places profits and wars over human needs and that it must be fundamentally changed.

The student sit-ins at the Woolworth store in Greensboro, N.C., spread throughout the South and influenced the tactics of the Civil Rights Movement.  Those protests, and Ella Baker’s efforts that helped to found SNCC, were independent initiatives that helped to influence the tactics and political demands of the Civil Rights Movement.

In sum, we have to place this Moral Mondays campaign within our understanding of the period we are in now. The main question is whether we are in motion, whether we are organizing and mobilizing to fight back.  When people fight, they raise questions about power and oppression. When people fight back, they learn because they know that by learning, they can fight better.

The Black Left Unity Network (BLUN) must help to spread the Moral Mondays and similar movements to other cities across the country. Part of the BLUN role must be to mobilize radical-thinking people rooted in the mass struggles to join the fight; work to raise the level of thinking of the people being radicalized by the struggle; and work to organize cooperation of the radical forces to help advance the strategy and tactics that can guide the movement on to victory at this juncture.

Saladin Muhammad is a leader of Black Workers For Justice based in North Carolina and a founding member of the Black Left Unity Network.

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