Moral Combat: The Right to Vote
— Katie O'Reilly
IN A WHITE House ceremony on November 24, 2014, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to the families of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, three civil rights activists slain by Mississippi Klansmen on June 21, 1964 — the first day of “Freedom Summer.”
When asked for comment on the medal, Rita Bender, Schwerner’s widow — and the woman who in 1964 gained notoriety for telling President Lyndon B. Johnson “This is not a social call,” when she met with him to demand federal investigation into the Mississippi murders — just noted that the “very best honor” Congress could bestow upon her late husband and others killed or injured in the struggle for voting rights would be “the reinstatement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and its aggressive enforcement.”
When I moved from Los Angeles to North Carolina during the summer of 2013, Tar Heel State legislators were beginning to make national headlines for their restrictive new voting laws, for their sudden refusal to expand Medicaid to their 500,000 working poor, for cutting unemployment benefits, and for the type of strategic redistricting that arouses suspicions of racial gerrymandering.
In June 2013, substantial sections of the Voters’ Rights Act of 1965 — a promise to African Americans that they could finally register and vote without fear of intimidation, retaliation, violence, and death — had expired. They were in fact those protective provisions put in place after hundreds in the South were killed in the name of voter suppression.
Around the time I was registering to vote in my new state, no-longer-limited lawmakers were busy mandating photo IDs and shortening early, absentee and provisional voting periods — measures that seemed conspicuously aimed at keeping Black, rural, and college-aged citizens away from the polls.
I may sound naive, but as a white member of Generation Y and recent transplant from California — where you can vote in almost any precinct you want, without ever being asked to show any form of identification — I’d never considered that in this day and age, people could still be facing obstacles just to get to the polls.
Shortened voting periods serve to complicate poll-going, particularly if you happen to work a ten-hour-a-day, blue-collar job. Also, we all know driver’s licenses don’t come free (remember poll taxes?), and many rural North Carolinians were never actually granted time-specific birth certificates, nor social security records.
“Around here, the Bible was many folks’ birth certificates,” says Bob Zellner, a North Carolinian, veteran of the Civil Rights Movement and author of the memoir The Wrong Side of Murder Creek: A White Southerner in the Freedom Movement (NewSouth Books, 2008). “They killed MLK, they killed Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X and Kennedy, and thousands more,” Zellner continues. “And today, through illegal redistricting and massive voter suppression, the reactionary regime is doing its damndest to take over the most progressive state in the South.”
When I arrived to work as a public radio reporter in Wilmington, state leaders were catching flak for passing bills to defund women’s health centers and to reduce per-pupil public education funding at all levels — their reasoning being that Democrats’ years of corruption and overspending had bankrupted the state.
It is debatable whether North Carolina — a competitive state perceived as a burgeoning economic powerhouse with some of the nation’s finest universities — had become frustrated with its struggling economy and took a chance on GOP rule, or whether it had more to do with Republicans’ aggressive 2011 redistricting of the legislature, passed when then-governor Bev Perdue, a Democrat, held no veto power.
Red-ruled North Carolina counts 2.7 million registered Democrats to two million Republicans. But it is in 2012 that the current crop of conservative GOP-ers assumed control of North Carolina’s House, Senate and Executive branches — their first such sweep in 140 years. By the time the ballots were tallied, many Southern progressives had seen their enlightened swing state, long known for its singular political shade of deep, Dixie purple, now becoming an incubator for Tea Party-style policies.
Nowadays, in response, some say that the state formerly known as the South’s beacon of progress is undergoing its third Reconstruction. Expressing this view perhaps most vehemently is Reverend William Barber II, the broad, mustachioed and charismatic leader of the South’s largest state NAACP chapter and recent recipient of the International Martin Luther King Jr. Award for peace.
According to Reverend Barber, the state’s second Reconstruction took place during the 1960s-era Civil Rights Movement, when many citizens gave their lives to end segregation, Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, literacy tests, church bombings and countless other forms of oppression that arose in the wake of the first Reconstruction following the South’s defeat in the Civil War.
The movement’s legacy lives on in the form of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Fair Housing Act of 1968. But today, Barber and several fellow civic leaders fear those advancements are being reversed. Their concern is evident in the rallying cry the NC NAACP adopted in 2013: “Forward together — not one step back!”
“It’s because so much of that progress we made in the sixties has been basically overthrown,” explains Zellner. At Reverend Barber’s request he recently moved from New York, where he taught history at Southampton College of Long Island University, down to the small, mixed-race, working-class city of Wilson, to help the NC NAACP spearhead Reconstruction 3.0.
By the time I’d registered as a driver’s license-holding North Carolinian, the NAACP along with likeminded civil rights groups had made a Monday habit of storming their state capitol to demonstrate in plain view of their lawmakers. Beginning in April 2013 and enduring week after week, during rain, shine and 100-plus-percent humidity, thousands of people were descending upon Raleigh to protest the onslaught of their state’s controversial new legislation.
In the process, hundreds of them were getting “peacefully arrested.” This cycle is known as “Moral Mondays,” and after arriving in North Carolina, I soon learned that among my neighbors, it had become a household term — not unlike the way “sit-ins” and “Freedom Rides” edged their way into everyday lexicon during the South’s “second Reconstruction.”
When the General Assembly adjourned in 2013, the “Moral” activity blossomed into a statewide and remarkably unpartisan-in-name “Moral Movement” — marked by hundreds of local rallies as well as by the coalition of groups both religious and not, African American and white, working-class and moneyed, queer and straight, along with Latinos, educators, laborers and military veterans.
The seeds of this movement were planted back in 2006, when Reverend Barber, still new to his leadership position, launched the Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s Assembly Coalition. For the February 2007 inception of “HKonJ,” as it’s better known, thousands of citizens gathered on Raleigh’s Jones Street, which flanks the capitol, in support of Barber’s just-penned, 14-point “People’s Agenda.”
This landmark manifesto calls for well-funded and diverse public schools, livable wages and health care for all North Carolinians, and redress for ugly portions of the state’s history, including racial coups and the forced sterilization of Black women. HKonJ became a significant annual march, its 14 points burned into the memories of many of its yearly demonstrators who continued to fight for the General Assembly to consider their progressive reforms.
So by the time Barber needed bodies to give up their Mondays to protest regressive legislation, he knew where to find them. It’s worth mentioning that last year, in February of 2014, the HKonJ rally attracted 80,000 North Carolinians — making it the largest civil rights march the South has seen since Selma’s in 1965.
On March 18, 2014, the New York Times reported that North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement had spread to Georgia, where that day 39 had been arrested for similarly choreographed waves of civil disobedience. The Georgian dissenters were protesting their state’s refusal to expand Medicaid benefits as part of the Affordable Care Act.
That same day, several members of South Carolina’s brand-new “Truthful Tuesday” coalition were arrested outside their statehouse in Columbia. The same article noted that the “moral” model is indeed proliferating, with similar groups budding within Florida and Alabama, and even north of the Mason-Dixon, in Wisconsin and New York.
North Carolina activists, however, remain the Moral forerunners, having taken the movement the furthest. Early on, Reverend Barber spoke about how the state’s most imperative threat, massive voter disenfranchisement, stood to undermine the democratic principles on which all “moral” activity was based. So prior to his state’s recent November election — a nationally prominent race into which more out-of-state money was funneled than any other midterm in American history — the North Carolina NAACP took its grassroots movement a huge step further, amassing a crew of “Moral Freedom Summer fighters” to run a nonpartisan voter empowerment campaign.
The most comprehensive effort of its kind to take place this century, this 15-week initiative, “Moral Freedom Summer,” involved intensive training of organizers under the age of 35, who were then dispatched across the state to provide citizen education and voter registration within 41 of North Carolina’s most rural and/or African American-populated counties.
This took a card from the blood-tainted 1964 “Freedom Summer” campaign, a time when “we all consciously prepared for beatings, for arrests, and for the very real possibility that someone would be killed,” Zellner says. [For first-hand recollections and accounts by Freedom Summer participants 50 years later, see our feature in ATC 170, May-June 2014 — ed.]
North Carolina’s new, 56-page Voter Identification Verification Act (VIVA), which spells out the drastic tightening of voting laws, was passed into action during the summer of 2013. The North Carolina NAACP, along with groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the U.S. Justice Department, have since filed several lawsuits against the state, citing the bill’s potential for racial discrimination.
But under the best of circumstances — if they win on all charged counts — the earliest these groups can hope to see any change is 2016. So in the meantime, people like 20-year-old Rebekah Barber and her fellow Moral Freedom Fighters, have taken it upon themselves to counteract the law’s potential repercussions.
The third of Reverend Barber’s five children, Rebekah seems to have inherited his gentle yet fiercely articulate manner of speaking. “We couldn’t undo that damage in time for the 2014 election,” she says, “so I got on board for Moral Freedom Summer understanding that what we could do was work to prevent voter intimidation, and to teach citizens about what was happening to their rights.”
Voter intimidation is currently a very real phenomenon in North Carolina. Prior to this past midterm election, for instance, incumbent state Senate speaker pro-tem Phil Berger, a conservative Republican, ran an ad insinuating that citizens would be required to present photo identification to vote in 2014, when in fact, according to the law, that stipulation cannot legally be enforced until 2016’s election.
When school let out last spring at North Carolina Central University, a historically Black college in Durham where Barber is an English major with honors, she headed to Greensboro — site of the 1960 Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-ins that arguably propelled the Civil Rights Movement onto the nation’s public stage — and set up camp at Bennett College, a small, historically Black women’s college that served as training grounds for an intensive weeklong Freedom Fighter prep session. From dawn to dusk, 39 Moral Freedom Fighters — mainly students and recent graduates recruited from colleges and community groups across the state — learned all about social movement theory, with an emphasis on civil rights history.
Movement veterans served as the young organizers’ instructors. Homework assignments involved perusing the very same documents that were created to train Freedom Summer’s volunteers back in 1964 — voter registration manuals taken from the SNCC archives.
My experience has been that today’s is an age wherein young people tend to channel their civic outrage into Facebook posts, to sign online petitions with a quick click, and perhaps treat the occasional blog post like an op-ed. The focus in Greensboro, however, was organizing “on the ground.” And that ground, says Zellner — who experienced his 18th arrest at 2013’s pilot Moral Mondays protest, and last summer helped to train and house Moral Freedom Fighters — is an offline entity. “The ground is where the people are, so the education was about talking, and about hands-on instruction.”
Along with fellow civil rights veterans, Zellner’s role in the training process was to simply talk about what happened in 1964 and relate it to 2014. He notes, “Some of this organizing was completely different” — for instance, last summer’s young people could focus solely on their education messages, and worry far less about ways to handle lynch mobs — “but there were a lot of common themes.”
To uncover those themes, Rebekah Barber and her cohort were schooled in NAACP history, the philosophies underlying the Moral Movement, and their state’s history. “Our school systems certainly aren’t teaching us all this information,” Barber reflects, “so it was absolutely eye-opening for us.”
Above all, Moral Freedom Summer training provided “lots of insights into the fact that what we were doing was so much bigger than ourselves.” She explains, “We could see that this” — taking the philosophies to the ground, into the communities — “had been in the making for years, and that it was up to us to actually make it happen.”
Rebekah left training and headed to her “station,” Wayne County’s mixed-race city of Goldsboro, with a few clear goals in mind. “It was important to me to register at least five citizens each day, including weekends,” she says. “And every Sunday, I’d visit multiple Protestant churches in an effort to strike up these important conversations about what’s going on in North Carolina.”
Freedom Summer of 1964 was so christened because what it fundamentally called for was a symbolic end to the institutional slavery still plaguing the South. “If it did nothing else,” Zellner says, “it ended lynch terror for Black males in the South — it took away the weapon that let Southerners do what they did to Emmet Till, to Mickey Schwerner, and to so many more.”
In 2014, Moral Freedom Summer’s objective was the nonpartisan coalition of groups that stood to become disenfranchised by North Carolina’s restrictive voting laws and redistricting patterns. Aside from paying obvious tribute to its inspiration in the 1964 campaign, it is no accident that Moral Freedom Summer employs the kind of language commonly found within Tea Party literature. It conjures “moral” choices, and seems like a “freedom thing,” a matter of exercising one’s constitutional rights.
According to Zellner, this evidences a very deliberate choice. “The NC NAACP and its progressive partners are using the flag and the constitution in part because we want to enforce that these symbols belong to the people — not to political extremists, not to the Tea Party,” he says.
“After all, this is not a Black-and-white thing — the extremist legislation in North Carolina isn’t doing anyone any favors except for maybe the top one percent. And the only reason so many North Carolina citizens are still voting against their interests is because they’ve been strategically handed racism and homophobia and antiwoman rhetoric — packaged nicely as ‘family values’ — to make them feel like they have any power at all.”
Zellner adds that Reverend Barber in fact coined “Moral Monday” very intentionally, in hopes that it might make people think of the “Moral Majority.” Up until now, it’s been financially supported interest groups that have managed to commandeer working-class, populist lingo, and while in fact using such rhetoric to hurt working-class Americans.
“It’s a flimflam that’s been going on for four centuries in the United States,” Zellner adds. “Consider slavery — it wasn’t the planters out there fighting for the Confederacy; most people in the South didn’t even have slaves, but there they were, giving their lives for the very cause of slavery.”
Freedom Summer of 1964 garnered attention, support, and even guest visits from the likes of actors Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando, but Zellner believes such star power wouldn’t be prudent for the Moral Movement. “Beyoncé and Jay-Z have expressed some interest in speaking out on behalf of it,” he says, noting that the Moral Movement enjoys behind-the-scenes support from high-profile names, “but it’s probably best that we keep it that way, so as not to alienate the people on the ground, here in North Carolina.”
Zellner, whose family counts a long line of Klan members, has the benefit of keen insight into the working-class Southern white male, the very specimen fiscal conservatives have long counted upon to maintain their power balance.
His father, a Methodist preacher from Alabama, ultimately traded in his white hood for the teachings of Martin Luther King and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference, after a trip to meet the Jewish underground resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe. That journey led the preacher to two epiphanies: that converting European Jews to Christianity was no reasonable nor viable way to save them from Third Reich tyranny; and that when you’re stationed in a foreign country, marooned and lonely, and members of a touring Black gospel choir he met there take you under their wing and become your closest friends, you no longer feel so great about persecuting African Americans once back on U.S. soil.
“He used to talk about how he’d ‘forget’ they were Black, that he and they were supposed to be ‘fundamentally different,’” Zellner says, “which of course led him to believe that no, they weren’t so fundamentally different.” His Alabama grandfather and uncles, however, remained entrenched in the KKK throughout their lives — so Zellner knows a thing or two about how to make inroads with right-wing conservatives and white supremacists.
These are groups that the Moral Movement is actively targeting for inclusion. “I often go into local Tea Party meetings here in Wilson, and people might be skeptical, knowing I was part of the Civil Rights Movement, but then I mention, ‘Daddy and Mom both went to Bob Jones College,’” Zellner says.
A South Carolina university long known for its outsized conservative political influence, the college, Zellner explained, was the “original Klan college.” “They still practiced segregation until eight or ten years ago.” What’s more, founder Dr. Bob Jones was Zellner’s godfather, who married his parents.
At these meetings, Zellner asks members about their concerns, gets to know them. “Our work in the Moral Movement involves going all in with a community’s people — attending their funerals and church potlucks, and asking, ‘How can we help’? It means taking what you hear and helping that community to organize. So when you find out that factory workers are nervous they’ll lose their jobs, that working-class parents are worried about getting their kids into pre-K, it’s about letting them know that you can help them take matters into their own hands.”
Zellner isn’t the only North Carolina activist who knows how to meet its citizens on their own ground. Reverend Barber, in fact, has been known to go into lily-white counties and tell people, “I’m a conservative.” “That’s how he’s got hundreds of whites suddenly joining their local NAACP chapters,” Zellner says. He says it’s also why Moral Mondays protesters are about 60% white, the rest a mixture of mainly African Americans and Latinos.
Zellner describes the Moral Movement’s inclusive nature as a working model of “fusion politics,” a term coined to describe the South’s Black-white coalition during the first Reconstruction. In the Moral Movement’s case, this includes “really all of disenfranchised North Carolina,” Zellner says.
Moral Freedom Summer 2014 naturally called for a lot of planning and fundraising. The NC NAACP planted those first seeds in 2012, at the Highlander Research and Education Center, a social justice training school in New Market, Tennessee, which specializes in educating those fighting for Appalachian, labor, and civil rights.
Zellner first met Barber at SNCC’s 50th anniversary conference in 2010, where the reverend delivered the keynote speech. They stayed in touch, and two years later Zellner found himself back at Highlander, helping to plan Moral Freedom Summer. Also present were many of Barber’s friends and fellow faith leaders, as well as labor activists, all manner of social justice advocates, and William Barber III, Rebekah’s 23-year-old brother, the field secretary for the North Carolina NAACP’s youth and college division.
The anniversaries of the August1963 March on Washington, and the following month’s murderous bombing of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church, happened to coincide with the passage of North Carolina’s controversial new voting bill, VIVA. And so Barber III was among the many NAACP leaders who seemed to intuit that therefore, a celebration alone would not suffice to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
“It just made us young people in the NAACP think of the voting rights fights that are ongoing, as well as those that are new for our generation,” Barber III says. “Before that conversation, we had plans to commemorate Freedom Summer, but after VIVA passed, we decided we wanted to make sure we did something much deeper to honor it — we wanted to develop a campaign that could change and shape this state for the better, and also spark a new era of activism among young people.”
Because the Moral Movement itself was well underway by the time the NAACP youth division began recruiting Moral Freedom Summer organizers, Barber III and his colleagues had already become well-versed in grassroots-style, fusion organization. They knew enough to be intentional about bringing in the next generation of Freedom Fighters: “We sought young North Carolinians who were interested in being on the ground, being in communities, doing deep voter registration, and making inroads within those communities.”
These young people had to be willing to learn all about a community’s particular struggles, they had to be equipped to listen to the needs of its citizens, and for the duration of 2014’s summer, they had to be willing to live with that community’s NAACP members and allies.
Barber III explains that the act of becoming entrenched within a community is what equips an organizer to address the unique needs of its people, as well as its long-term infrastructure. “We didn’t want people helicoptering in for a moment and coming right out,” he says. “because that doesn’t work — that’s not what builds true community power.”
Freedom Summer’s 1964 activists may have been volunteers; however, paying for Moral Freedom Summer organizers, Zellner says, was a “very intentional decision.” Having come of age in a pre-recessionary era embracing of unpaid internships as a stepping stone to one’s career, I find logic in the argument that those who can actually afford to take such apprenticeships are typically privileged.
“That’s not representative of the future of North Carolina,” says Zellner. “We sought African American organizers, Latino and white organizers, women and men, religious and nonreligious organizers — a population that would actually reflect the state’s shifting demographics. Because as I’ve mentioned, this is not a Black-and-white thing — it’s a huge coalition being brought together to show how important and sacred the right to vote really is. And without payment, we wouldn’t have been able to assemble that kind of coalition.”
More than half of the citizens in Goldsboro, a somewhat isolated city of 36,437 in North Carolina’s central plain, are African American. Today, its citizens’ average household income is $29,456, and many, perhaps most, are employed by the local Air Force base. Goldsboro was a site of General Sherman’s historic Carolinas Campaign, an 1864 Union offensive.
It’s also where Rebekah Barber grew up, and where she was assigned to wage her Moral Freedom Summer fight. “I saw all the facts,” she says. “I know that the reason we’re facing some of the problems we are now — why we have such a regressive legislature — boils down to the truth that in that election, people didn’t vote like they should’ve.”
Rebekah adds that she is “the type that tries not to make the same mistake twice.” While she grew up in a household of activists, and was raised by perhaps this generation’s preeminent civil rights leader (as well as the top faith leader to watch in 2014, according to the Center for American Progress), Rebekah Barber shies away from the term organizer:“I don’t know exactly where my future will lead. But I understand that people fought and died for my right to vote, and so exercising that right is the least I can do, the least everyone can do. But I don’t mean to make it sound so simple, because we have to do our research before we go out to the ballot box.”
Research is what she brought to the denizens of Goldsboro, in the form of easy-to-read fact sheets breaking down the Tar Heel State’s recent extremist legislation, and the implications of such measures for its average citizens. “As far as being informed,” she says, “people in North Carolina generally know things are bad lately, but it’s a lot different when you actually have numbers in front of you.”
Each morning last summer, she’d link up with at least one member of the city’s local NAACP chapter, go out into the community, and canvass, “just like they did fifty years ago.” While Barber’s training at Bennett College may not have included comprehensive beating and tear-gas training, each Moral Freedom Summer organizer had to pledge never to go out alone, never to go out at night, and always to phone local NAACP chapters and their partner organizations to report their whereabouts.
Most days, Barber would stick to residential areas, and travel door to door, striking up conversations with citizens, and offering to help them register to vote. “When you show up in person, you also show that you actually care,” Rebekah notes. “It’s easy to say ‘Go vote!’ from a distance, but taking the time to talk about it, and putting a human face to the NAACP and the Moral Movement? That makes a huge difference.”
Those front-door interactions were often just quick conversations — but at least a few times a week, Rebekah would find herself pointing to the meat of the matter. “We’d remind them of people who fought and died for our right to vote in Freedom Summer and beyond. In some areas, we’d ask people whether they had access to the Internet, or to sample ballots, all the while knowing that the answer was ‘no’.”
Many citizens she spoke with knew that they were being affected by Medicaid cuts — which was also the issue that Rebekah says resonated most among those with whom she spoke while canvassing — or by the loss of their unemployment insurance, but didn’t know quite why.
“Until they know why they’re just angry,” Barber says, “but once we show them the specific legislation and they come to understand the why, they’re typically more motivated to at least try to change things.” She likens this phenomenon to her own experience of learning that her college tuition was increasing. “It was frustrating, but I didn’t understand why it was happening until I read about how [North Carolina Governor] McCrory’s been turning away public funding.”
On many other days, Sundays in particular, Rebekah and her NAACP copilots would hit up church or community meetings and introduce themselves. “We really wanted to stay true to the Freedom Summer model, and make sure we actually went out into the community,” she says. “I mean, sure it was my hometown, but I’ve never been entrenched in any community like that before in my life. That impact of that level of involvement is hard to explain — it was just so amazing.”
While the majority of Freedom Summer volunteers may have been white, Zellner says the success of Freedom Summer 1964 rests on Black Mississippians. “They were the ones welcoming us into our homes, feeding us meals, letting us sleep on their beds, and trusting us to educate them about their rights as citizens.”
Zellner witnessed a truck full of Confederate-flag-waving whites bringing a monkey to a voter registration drive, there to have it stand in line with many of Greenwood’s African Americans. One night, he brought a critically wounded Black gunshot victim to the hospital, only to have the patient turned away and refused first aid, the “colored doctor” being off duty that day. But he also saw local people empowered for the first time with the knowledge that they had rights, they had history, they had something to stand for, and they had a legal, if not easy, means to do it.
“The summer of 1964 was a life-changing experience for all of the volunteers who came down,” Zellner says, “even for us veteran staff people, who’d already done plenty of protests and jail time and freedom rides and sit-ins. Because this was about becoming ingrained in a community and working with its locals. People were changed forever in Mississippi — locals and volunteers alike.”
While many Moral Freedom Summer fighters set up camp in “freedom houses” — a term borrowed from Freedom Summer of 1964, which in 2014 denoted spaces donated from or shared with local NAACP members — Rebekah Barber spent the summer of 2014 in her childhood home, with her family. She was also able to corral old friends into helping her, and to get those friends to distribute flyers reading, “JOIN THE MORAL MOVEMENT AND STAND UP FOR EQUALITY, HEALTH CARE, FULL FUNDING FOR EDUCATION, A LIVING WAGE, ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE, AND VOTING RIGHTS FOR ALL NORTH CAROLINIANS.”
Most of the people Rebekah encountered during her canvassing were “very respectful.” She experienced powerful interchanges that involved sitting down on various front porches and helping illiterate citizens navigate their voter registration forms. But unlike what organizers experienced in 1964, Rebekah Barber encountered no violence, zero monkeys, no name-calling, nor tear-gassing, nor jail.
An older white gentleman did try to rile her up one humid July, 2014 afternoon, when he came across the voter registration table she’d set up in the parking lot outside Goldsboro’s Wal-Mart. “He started making a scene, accusing me of registering swarms of illegal immigrants,” Rebekah says. “He kept shouting at people in line that they needed to travel up to the board of elections if they wanted to register, so that if they were ‘illegal,’ they would get caught.”
She is well aware that, compared to the experiences of Zellner and his Freedom Summer compatriots, her cohort’s efforts were peaceful and marked by ease. “Some days could get exhausting, and some people would be rude or abrupt or claim they ‘had their own reasons’ they didn’t want to register,” she says. “I knew I certainly couldn’t force everyone. But when it got hard, I’d just stop and think about all they went through in 1964 and consider how we don’t have anything to worry about. The biggest peril today is not violence; it’s becoming disenfranchised, and that just fueled my Moral Freedom Summer mission.”
Activist and author James P. Marshall is a fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Circle back to the issue of 1960s-era press blackout: Marshall, a 23-year-old Yale student on leave in 1964, didn’t actually go down to Mississippi as a volunteer, but many of his classmates did.
As a fervent civil rights supporter and a staff member of the Yale Daily News, Marshall saw a key opportunity to boost the Mississippi Freedom Summer project. “I was aware that there would be a problem getting the information out,” he says, “which has always been the case for civil rights activities.”
Beginning during the period of the 1963’s “Freedom Ballot,” and working through Freedom Summer and beyond,” Marshall would have his friends and contacts within SNCC and other student leadership organizations call him at night and tell him about their days. “I’d get those stories’ galleys ready by around twelve at night, and then shop the stories around the Ivy League papers through our wire, the Collegiate Press Service,” Marshall says. If there was a big story, he’d relay it the Hartford Courant and they’d take it from there.
After the summer of 1964, he went to New York City to work within the community relations department of the Congress for Racial Equality, better known as CORE, doing, he says, “essentially the same thing.” Nowadays, Marshall’s back in action, working to get the Moral Movement what he says is its due attention.
Before Marshall’s old friend Zellner got him looped into the NAACP’s press release circuit, late in 2013, he says none of Harvard’s many civil rights professors even knew about the now nine-year-old Moral Movement. Nowadays, he blasts weekly or twice-weekly missives about it to hundreds of Northeast-based academics, SNCC veterans, and progressives from around the country.
“The experience I had with the Civil Rights movement in ’64 had a very large influence on why I became involved with the Moral Movement in North Carolina,” says Marshall, “because I’m doing the exact same thing again.” Slowly, outlets like MSNBC and Crisis Magazine are beginning to devote coverage to Barber and his contagious, grassroots model of organizing. But it is indeed curious that outlets such as the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and CNN have stayed relatively mum on the South’s widespread moral combat.
“It doesn’t behoove right-wing organizations, which control so much of the news, to let the truth come out,” Marshall posits. Zellner adds, “Grassroots organization is scary on a national level. They’re afraid of it. Because when you show people how simple it is, the power it has, you realize it’s not controllable. And as movements like Moral prove, grassroots action is infectious. It’s fusion — it applies to any group that feels oppressed or disenfranchised.”
Luckily, the Moral Movement was born in an age where mainstream press isn’t strictly necessary. “We’ve got every Moral Monday live-streaming on YouTube,” Barber III notes. “We’ve got powerful pictures all over social media — and people standing in solidarity by tuning in on a consistent basis. So slowly but surely, the word is getting out.”
Not unlike Freedom Summer, the Moral Freedom Summer campaign fell short of its registration goals, netting only about 15,000 new voters. While the NC NAACP’s original goal was to amass 50,000 new citizens to join its “Moral March to the Polls,” in many other ways Moral Freedom Summer exceeded benchmarks put in place back during the Greensboro training session.
For William Barber III, the Moral Freedom Summer campaign boiled down to a number of metrics. “Qualitatively speaking, we did seek a resurgence of energy, and awareness about what was happening in North Carolina, among young people. We wanted to establish intergenerational relationships, to bridge relationships between elders, social movement veterans, and youths. It’s a fact that young people tend to sit out during midterm elections, and we wanted to shift that for the long term, to drive home an understanding that every election is critical for all citizens.”
Quantitatively though, the measure of success gets less symbolic. “We aimed to inspire at least two hundred fifty ‘people’s coalitions’ within individual communities,” Barber III says, “and we actually exceeded that, seeing about five hundred of them.” Like the pilot people’s coalition Historic Thousands on Jones Street, or HKonJ, these phenomena involve people mobilizing peaceful rallies and demonstrations within their own communities.
One such event in Wilmington involved hundreds of demographically diverse citizens cheering for their high-profile visitor, the booming and ever-magnetic Reverend Barber. He delivered a rousing speech about the need for North Carolina’s citizens to prevent further “moral” backslide, which culminated in an audience explosion of hugging, tears, Stevie Wonder songs, and the formation of a massive line of people, eager to personally receive three voter registration forms — “one for you, and extras to register two of your friends” — from the famous reverend himself.
Another pre-election goal they exceeded, says Barber III, was amassing eight to ten “massive statewide actions, modeled after Moral Mondays themselves.” What’s perhaps most impressive of all, though, is the fact that rather than just meeting the expected 2000 door-to-door and phone bank contacts, the average Moral Freedom Summer fighter made 15,000 such contacts.
“And for a number of these organizers, this was their first time actually organizing,” Barber III says. “So while the lofty goal of fifty thousand registrations was not made, it was made up for in plenty of other elements of the work.”
To the North Carolina NAACP’s great disappointment, fewer than three million of the state’s 9.85 million citizens voted on November 4. “It’s easy to get depressed when some eighty thousand African Americans still didn’t turn out to vote,” Barber III says. “We didn’t necessarily see a lot of the things we were hoping for.
“When you look at voter turnout you have to understand that first of all, what we were aiming to do actually happened — more young people participated in a midterm election here than we could ever remember happening. And number two, we can see that despite all the voter suppression that’s been enacted — all the propaganda pushed out, all the record-setting amounts of big money funneled into this state — the margin of right-wing victory was actually a very small percentage.
“That gives us hope. Because if those leaders actively trying to suppress the vote can pull out all those stops and still only win by a tiny percentage, there’s still plenty of hope for us to be able to continue to mobilize, to go back into our communities, and to push people to vote.”
James Marshall is quick to add that, after an election like this one, “There’s always a collapse, morally and psychologically. But this just goes to show that it’s time to wake up.”
Regarding the effect the Moral Freedom Summer initiative had on the organizers themselves, Zellner deems it a rousing success. “We need a new generation of revolutionaries in the South,” he says, “especially the way things are going during this unpredictable third wave of Reconstruction. Freedom is a constant struggle, and many of us who have been organizing and fighting for it for our whole lives won’t be around in another twenty years.”
The Moral Movement, he believes, is here to stay — “It’s become a model for grassroots organizing in the South and beyond, and it will probably be relevant for the next quarter of a century.”
Having been born and raised in Chicago, and having lived in major cities in Texas, the Czech Republic and California, I can say with certainty that North Carolina is far from politically apathetic. In the wake of the 2014 election, strategy for 2016 is a pervasive topic of conversation among my neighbors and colleagues. As one of Reverend Barber’s favorite and, as of late, most often repeated rallying calls states: “It’s a movement — not a moment.”
November-December 2015, ATC 179