Moral Mondays in the South: An Interview with Miriam Thompson

Francys_Johnson__Barber_Atlanta_Jan_13.jpg
Reid Freeman Jenkins

By Barbara Joye

Following a right-wing Republican takeover of both houses of the North Carolina state legislature and the governor’s office in 2012, the state NAACP, led by Rev. Dr. William Barber II, launched the Moral Monday (MM) movement. This coalition has involved more than 150 organizations in weekly marches, rallies, and sit-ins at the state capitol. On February 8, 2014, the largest civil rights demonstration in the South since the 1960s brought 80,000 people to Raleigh.

After the legislature passed new rules against protest inside the capitol, more than a thousand people marched on the first day of the 2014 legislative session with their mouths taped shut. Sit-ins in the speaker of the House’s office and the governor’s office followed the next week, but the cases against those arrested were dismissed.

This summer, 50 years after the Freedom Summer that helped spur progress on civil rights, organizers spread out over North Carolina for Moral Freedom Summer.  As we went to press, Rev. Barber issued a call for country-wide demonstrations in late August.

In the following interview, Miriam Thompson, who has been involved with Moral Mondays and its predecessor organization (Historic Thousands on Jones Street—HKonJ), talks about the movement’s vision and challenges. Thompson is the labor chair of the Chapel Hill/Carrboro branch of the state NAACP. She moved to North Carolina in 2007 from New York City, where she was a founder and director of Advocates for Children of New York, directed the United Auto Workers Union Local 259 Community Action Program, and ran an urban leadership program for the Joseph Murphy Worker Education Center.

Barbara Joye: What are Moral Monday’s key issues?

Miriam Thompson: Moral Monday has a 14-point platform that reflects the concerns of its partners. Currently, the top issues are voter disenfranchisement and suppression; the state’s failure to expand Medicaid; worker justice, including restoring extended unemployment benefits; ending wars of occupation and bringing the war dollars home; immigrant rights; racial justice; and education issues, including the defunding of public education in favor of charter schools and vouchers (now being challenged in court), not giving teachers raises for five years, and cutting teacher assistants. During the legislative session, each day of action focuses on a different issue.

BJ: What are the strengths and challenges of MM NC?

MT: Our greatest strength is the director of the state NAACP, Rev. Dr. William Barber II. He’s a charismatic leader with the power to bring people into the movement so that we speak in unison. Faith leaders are very important in the coalition. This is a military state with thousands of workers on military bases, and we have a lot of ex-military in our ranks; we have come together around the mistreatment of veterans. Also, I and many of my colleagues in MM were involved in Occupy; we need to give credit to the Occupy movement.

Rev. Barber and his executive council of HKonJ partners lead the struggle, but are moving to strengthen and broaden the movement through local People’s Assemblies. In the past few months, MM has moved out of Raleigh to other cities in North Carolina to build the coalition statewide and engage people on the local level.

BJ: What impact is the movement having, given that the legislature has not passed new laws or policies in response?

MT: They may do something about teacher salaries, but they may do it by taking more money away from public higher education or social services rather than imposing a more progressive income and corporate tax. Most of the charges made in [more than a thousand] arrests at demonstrations have been dropped, which I think reflects the strength of the movement. There have been major stories in North Carolina media and nationally.

BJ: In DSA we always ask whether a movement brings democracy to the economy. Do you think MM’s strategy will ultimately extend democracy to the economy, which would require a fundamental restructuring of social and economic institutions?

MT: DSA’s vision of changing institutional structures is clearly compatible with the vision of MM, but changing capitalism is not part of our language. Instead, we talk about keeping the legislature from being bought and paid for by corporate interests and ALEC sponsors, and we push for a more progressive income and corporate tax.

BJ: What are the next steps for MM, especially around the elections in the fall?

MT: We can’t endorse candidates, because the NAACP and most member organizations (except the AFL-CIO) have to be nonpartisan. We will focus on voter education and registration this summer and until the election. We will also work on getting out the vote.

BJ: What do you most want our readers to understand about MM?

MT: There are two lessons for any social justice organizer or advocate: (1) the work didn’t start yesterday. What you see today began in 2006; and (2) you have to build democratic organizations locally and pull together a broad swath of social justice organizations as partners. That has always been the challenge for the left; we find it hard to stay focused for the long haul and to find common ground. Rev. Barber and partners have done both. It’s important for the People’s Assemblies to amplify that role, by helping organize and also bringing important issues from the bottom. Outcomes for me are less important than doing the work, and putting my footprint for social justice on this earth.

The Moral Monday movement has already spread to several other states, such as Alabama, Florida, Missouri and Indiana, and most notably in neighboring South Carolina and Georgia. In South Carolina, the lead organization is the South Carolina Progressive Network (SCPN), a coalition of 70 groups (including the NAACP) that has been forging alliances among that state’s progressive organizations for the past 18 years. Its first “Moral Budget” demonstration, in 2011, turned out 3,500 people, and its demonstrations, says SCPN director Brett Bursey, have “changed the dialogue and strengthened the backbone of the Democrats in the legislature, and...killed some bad bills.” This summer, the coalition took a “Healthy Democracy Road Show” around the state.

In Georgia, organizers from Occupy our Homes Atlanta, DSA, and other groups that had worked together began talking about a Moral Monday Georgia (MMGA) coalition in August of 2013. The new state NAACP president, Rev. Francys Johnson, led the first rally, for Medicaid expansion, which attracted 500 people and significant media coverage. He also brought Rev. Barber to speak in Atlanta that day.

A core group of 100-200 activists from 40 Georgia organizations, including DSA, held weekly rallies on a variety of issues drawn from a 12-point platform. On three of the rally days, groups sat in at the Capitol and legislative offices, resulting in 73 arrests of 61 people, 10 DSA members among them. During the last week of the session in mid-March, MMGA—joined by Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock of Martin Luther King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church—drew national and international media attention. This summer, groups of arrestees participated in a 16-city “Jailed for Justice” tour of the state, hoping to spread MMGA outside of Atlanta.

Will this movement have impact and staying power? Its supporters hope so. As Rev. Barber emphasizes, the source of its power is unity among people of all races, religions, and walks of life “rooted in the idea of the deep moral issues about faith, our Constitution, anti-racism, [and] anti-poverty.”

Barbara Joye is a co-editor of the DL Blog, serves on the National Political Committee of DSA, and is active in the Atlanta DSA.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2014 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

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Full film available on Vimeo.