Progressive America has grown transfixed by the transformative social movement in North Carolina known as Moral Mondays. It began on April 29 last year, when a small group of clergy and activists went to the Capitol in Raleigh to protest the tide of conservative, regressive legislation that deprived North Carolinians of basic rights such as voting, healthcare, reproductive freedom, and most prominently, high-quality, adequately funded education.
Since then, not a Monday has passed without action in Raleigh. Now, an average of 2,500 protesters converge weekly—but, at times, they number in the tens of thousands. What's more, the movement has brought together a huge coalition of labor, education, racial and social justice, and faith-based organizations, and it has spread to South Carolina, Georgia and other states.
The man behind it all is the Rev. Dr. William Barber, who, on that first Moral Monday, was led away in handcuffs simply for exercising his right to enter a public building. As the opening speaker at the 2014 convention, he shared a powerful message of hope, cooperation and unity that brought delegates to their feet.
"We are in the midst of a moral crisis that demands we have a movement now," said Barber, minutes after receiving the AFT's prestigious Bayard Rustin Award. "I've seen, and I believe, that deep within our being is a longing for a true moral compass."
Barber, the child of activists who returned to the South in the dangerous years of the 1960s to fight for voting rights, was born two days after the March on Washington, he told delegates. He put his work for justice in the context of that spiritual and historical reality.
"In that moment, the devotees of justice and freedom did not shrink back ... They marched, they organized, they built coalitions, they rallied young people, they engaged in civil disobedience, they lobbied. They turned movements of despair into movements of hope. They joined a moral crusade that changed the nation and the world."
Today is another such moment of moral crisis, he told the AFT activists, and it comes at the hands of a well-funded conservative movement.
"If we don't address systemic racism and extremism and poverty, it costs us the soul of our nation. Every time we fail to educate a child on the front end of life, it costs us on the back end of life."
He added, "Somebody must stand up and say, this is an immoral agenda. Not only is this extreme agenda contrary to our greatest faith values, it's contrary to the promise of America."
Barber urged educators to not underestimate the power of groups coming together to build a new movement:
"That's why I love your theme 'Reclaiming the Promise,' " he said. "Because we should declare today that this reality is over, and we should make America a fresh promise of our own. That is, we will organize and fight for the soul of our democracy. It's time. We ain't gonna let nobody turn us around. We have the power of our togetherness.
"I know it personally that when we get together, we win."
[Barbara McKenna/photo by Russ Curtis]