Hundreds march on Jones Street for economic and social justice

by Keith Barber

A citizen coalition composed of more than 90 religious, civil rights and community organizations marched from the campus of Shaw University to the NC General Assembly building during the fifth annual Historic Thousands of Jones Street rally in downtown Raleigh on Feb. 12. (photo by Keith T. Barber)

The Rev. William Barber, president of the NC NAACP, stood on a stage erected at the Jones Street entrance to the NC General Assembly and greeted the hundreds of marchers assembled for the fifth annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street rally on Feb. 12 in downtown Raleigh with a call to action.

“Forward together!” Barber exclaimed. “Not one step back!” the audience responded in unison. A coalition composed of more than 90 religious, civil rights and community organizations convened on the campus of Shaw University around 9 a.m. and began marching toward the NC General Assembly building. Barber welcomed to the marchers to Jones Street with a rousing address that called on state and local elected officials to stand up for education equality, economic justice and civil rights.

Barber also touched on the historic significance of Feb. 12 as the day of the march.

“The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, was formed 102 years ago today,” Barber said. “One hundred two years ago, whites and blacks, preachers and scholars, Jews and Christians, lawyers and social scientists, decided that in the midst of social crisis of regression, they would not go back. Instead, they would answer the call for justice, they would challenge the forces of injustice, they would still believe in the possibility of ‘We the people.’” Barber drew parallels to recent events in Egypt to place the march in historical perspective.

“We know today without a shadow of a doubt that as we gather here today on Feb. 12, 2011, we stand in that grand tradition that still refuses to believe that inequality and injustice has the last word,” Barber continued. “It is a tradition so deep, so creative, so transformative that it keeps on even when its leaders are assassinated. This longing for inclusive democracy captures the imagination of each succeeding generation and right before our eyes, we see it on the streets of Cairo in Egypt, because injustice demands a challenge and the very essence of our souls cries out for freedom.”

Barber also explained the significance of holding a rally on the steps of the NC General Assembly.

“We gather in front of our house, the people’s house, the General Assembly, as another manifestation [of the movement],” he said. “We gather here to say to those who want to drag this state, this country back into the politics of yesterday, ‘Yes, the voices of division are louder than ever, but we won’t go back.’” Barber spoke at length about the issue of educational equality and an ongoing situation in the Wake County schools. In September, Barber announced that the national NAACP was filing a lawsuit against the Wake County School Board in response to the board’s decision to dismantle its student assignment plan based on socioeconomic diversity in preference of a school choice plan.

“So we gather today to demand educational equality for every child, re-segregating our public schools as a vicious backwards step,” Barber said. “It’s a turn in the wrong direction and we can’t have it.”

Barber said the issue of re-segregating public schools is not just an issue in Wake County. He cited the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools as well as school systems in Halifax, Wayne, New Hanover and Mecklenburg counties as “backwards and headed in the wrong direction.”

“They take our diverse democracy backwards and in the wrong direction by intentionally purging certain schools and attendance zones of black and Latino and poor children and creating high poverty schools that create unequal resources, rapid teacher turnover and low student achievement,” Barber said.

George Reed of the NC Council of Churches told the audience that

the statewide ecumenical organization supports the NAACP’s position on the re-segregation of schools.

“As people of faith and North Carolina citizens, we affirm one, that all children are children of God and must be valued and nourished as such,” Reed said. “Two, that diversity in public schools benefits all children, not just the underprivileged, and three, because of values central to our faiths and in keeping with the NC Constitution, we will speak out in support of public policy that promotes diversity and equality opportunity for all North Carolina students.”

Seth Keel, a student at Middle Creek High School in Apex, energized the crowd with his scathing criticism of the Wake County school board.

“If there is one thing the school system has taught me under the diversity policy is that we are all deserving of the same opportunity no matter where we come from or what language we speak or the color of our skin,” Keel said. “And we all benefit from being integrated. Segregating us only creates misunderstanding and prejudice.”

Keel characterized the Wake County school board’s actions as an attempt to divide students based on their family’s income.

“When we allow this oppression to happen we take away lifetimes of opportunity,” Keel said. “When the school board stands with re-segregation, they are spitting into the faces of the students they were elected to serve. Diversity feeds the mind and the soul and allows us to evolve into better people and we must never forget that, and we must make sure that we never let the school board forget that.”

NAACP national president Ben Jealous spoke about the importance of fighting against a “new Jim Crow” in the South and the criminalization of an entire people based upon race.

“We are 5 percent of the world’s people — Americans of all colors — and we are 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,” Jealous said. “We don’t just lock up more black people than South Africa ever did — we lock up more white people than any country on earth.”

MaryBe McMillan, secretary-treasurer of the NC AFL-CIO, called on the marchers to fight for economic justice for all North Carolina families and criticized state legislators for “trying to repeal healthcare and debating video gambling,” rather than putting people back to work.

“All of us who are out here in the real world, we know that what people need the most right now are jobs, and I’m not talking about a job at Wal-Mart or McDonald’s,” McMillan said. “What people need are good jobs that pay family-sustaining wages and provide benefits.”

McMillan also called on state legislators to pass laws that respect workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively.

“We need to make our voices heard in proportion to our numbers and not just today but every day,” McMillian said. “We are the backbone of the economy and when you take away our buying power, like these job losses and low wages have done, the whole economy suffers.”

McMillan urged those in attendance to make their voices heard to their elected officials.

“Let’s make a promise right here and now that we will not back down, we will not retreat and we will not be silent until workers everywhere have good jobs and have the right to organize and bargain collectively,” she said.

Darryl Hunt addressed the hundreds in attendance, speaking on equal protection under the law and urging support for the Racial Justice Act. Hunt, who was exonerated of the rape and murder of Winston-Salem newspaper editor Deborah Sykes in 2003 after spending 19 years in prison, made the point that he was one juror’s vote away from receiving the death penalty.

“If one person had voted for death penalty I wouldn’t be standing here today,” Hunt told the audience.

Since the NC General Assembly passed the Racial Justice Act two years ago, the law has come under assault, Hunt said.

“When the racist tea party forces took over the Republican 2010 campaign strategy, they sent out mailers that lied about the Racial Justice Act, playing on people’s racial prejudices and fears,” Hunt said. “The mailers pictured death row inmates convicted of rape and murder, told voters that the Racial Justice Act would help them get out of prison, move in next door to a white suburban family and break into their houses. This is an out and out lie.”

Hunt noted that last week, Superior Court Judge William Z. Wood upheld the Racial Justice Act as constitutional in a Forsyth County courtroom.

“We won that victory but the fight continues on,” Hunt said. “We have to do this in every courtroom, in every county, in every part of the state to let them know that we will not let the Racial Justice Act be repealed; we will not turn back the clock because if you’re against racial justice, you’re against justice for everybody.”

Hunt expressed optimism that those who support the Racial Justice Act will prevail, but said there are still scores of people who are wrongfully imprisoned, including Kalvin Michael Smith, who is currently serving a 23- to 29-year sentence for the assault of Jill Marker during an armed robbery of the Silk Plant Forest shop.

At the conclusion of his remarks, Barber delivered a message to state legislators and elected officials across the state.

“We will not go away!” Barber exclaimed, and the audience responded with applause.

“In fact, the truth is, sometimes what pushes you down is what makes you stand up,” he continued. “Sometimes when wrong tries to take you backwards, it makes you work harder to go forward. When situations knock you on your knees, you go down and pray and learn how to get back up again. There are those who think when they win a couple of elections, they have a mandate to engage in the politics of disrespect. We don’t ever have a mandate to regress, we don’t ever have a mandate to violate our constitution. No political election is a mandate to undermine opportunities for the children.”

Barber paused a moment before declaring, “It’s movement time! Forward together!” “Not one step back!” shouted the hundreds in attendance.