Doctors, fast-food workers and other agitators

by Jordan Green

Just before Rosanell Eaton, a 92-year-old plaintiff against North Carolina’s new restrictive voting law, gave the tens of thousands of North Carolinians massed near Shaw University their marching orders, the Rev. William Barber II admonished a few politicians.

“Let me say to elected officials: Do not get in the front of the line,” the state NAACP president said. “This is not a Democratic gathering or a Republican gathering. If you are a legislator you need to be among the people; do not come to the front of the line. Either party. We don’t do that. We’ve never done it for seven years. We don’t start it now.”

US Rep. David Price, who represents North Carolina’s super-liberal 4 th Congressional District, took questions from a reporter on the sidelines and then happily joined the throng with a handful of friends.

A progressive march in North Carolina that draws from the organizational infrastructure of the NAACP can feel like a reenactment of the civil rights movement. But Barber and the multiracial coalition that led last year’s Moral Monday protests at the General Assembly and the annual HK on J marches before, have made it clear that their tradition of protest goes back much further. This new civic awakening takes its cues from the fusion movement of the late 19 th century, a coalition of newly enfranchised blacks and workingclass whites who were attempting to reconstruct the state and prevent the restoration of white supremacy after the abolition of slavery.

That period gave North Carolina its state constitution, which among other progressive measures, established universal public education.

The state constitution also established the sovereignty of the people with a stern repudiation to oligarchy, as sonorously enunciated from the speaker’s platform by Barber at the conclusion of the Feb. 8 march: “All political power is vested in and derived from the people; all government of right originates from the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.”

The news media rumbled in the days leading up to the Moral March about busloads of protesters coming into Raleigh from outside of the state, calling to mind Gov. Pat McCrory’s warning last year that “outsiders are coming in and they’re going to try to do to us what they did to Scott Walker in Wisconsin.” At the time, the vast majority of the participants in the Moral Monday protests were North Carolina residents. But as the new year opens, detractors and supporters of the movement alike are wondering if North Carolina is becoming, like Wisconsin was in 2011, a national flashpoint for progressive pushback against insurgent ultraconservatism in state government.

Many of those who traveled from Massachusetts, Florida and other states to join the Moral March in Raleigh saw an opportunity to amplify their own voices by joining ranks with people with similar frustrations and hopes from across North Carolina.

“We’re just down here because we’re pissed off about the whole conservative movement,” Clint Sherrill, who traveled to Raleigh with his wife, Mary, and other members of the Sojourners United Church of Christ in Charlottesville, Va., told me.

“My whole thing is Fox News is on 24 hours a day,” Sherrill added. “Progressives are going to have to be on 24 hours a day.”

Renita Grover, a mother of four who works at Burger King in Atlanta, was marching with fellow fast-food workers from Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas.

“I’m a mother of four trying to send my children to college,” Grover told me. “Surviving on $7.25 an hour is not enough to make ends meet. Burger King is a billionaire company. They can afford to pay more.”

The politics of government might vary from state to state, but the aspirations for dignity and economic security held by the marchers transcended geographic divisions.

“We want to go worldwide,” Grover said. “If I can open my mouth to speak my voice, it should be heard.”

Chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, $7.25 has got to go,” the fast-food workers in the Raise Up campaign marched with immigrant farmworkers from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, their red flags fluttering together. “We are worth more” shared air space with “Hasta la Victoria” (“Until victory”).

As doctors and students, LGBT activists and environmentalists, seasoned civil rights activists and Latino youth jammed several blocks in front of the North Carolina State Capital — organizers estimated attendance at 80,000 to 100,000 — Rev. Barber tacitly acknowledged that the movement has to be fun to retain its staying power.

“Can we have a party on Fayetteville Street?” he asked, prompting the monster bass rumble of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.”

“People… people,” Barber called out with an impish smile before handing off the mic.

But the real star power could be found in the crowd, not at the head of the march or on the speaker’s platform.

Dr. Stephen Luking, a family physician in Reidsville, stood at a street corner wearing his white coat emblazoned with the ensign of Cone Health and holding a sign reading, “Us doctors got a big tax cut. My poorest patients got a death sentence. Expand Medicaid.” He willingly obliged as passersby asked to take his photograph and thanked him for taking a stand.

“My poorest patients are at risk of death because of what the North Carolina legislature has done with the blessing of our governor,” he said. “Until colonoscopies, pap smears and mammograms can be done in the emergency room some of my poorest patients will continue to die because of the failure to expand Medicaid.

“I’ll debate anyone on this,” he continued. “Every year I’ve been in practice I’ve seen somebody die because of not hav- ing insurance. We defaulted in our abil- ity to expand it to cover more people.”