Approximately 1,500 Unitarian Universalists took part in the “Moral March” organized by the North Carolina NAACP as part of its Forward Together Moral Movement. Organizers estimated that as many as 80,000 people filled the streets outside the state capitol.
Last year the Republican-controlled legislature passed a voting law that critics called the worst voter suppression legislation in the nation, with provisions that disproportionately affect voters of color, women, the elderly, and youth. The legislature has also blocked Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act and cut unemployment benefits and funding for education.
Those measures and others prompted the Rev. Dr. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP and the movement’s chief architect, to launch an ongoing series of “Moral Monday” demonstrations inside the capitol, in which more than 900 people have been arrested, including local Unitarian Universalists. Moral Monday events have also spread to Georgia and South Carolina.
Barber also issued a nationwide call for people to come to Raleigh to protest the legislature’s actions as part of the annual “Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s Assembly.” He wrote, “We’re sending out the call. Just like Dr. King said ‘Come to Selma’ in 1965, we’re saying ‘Come to Raleigh’ in 2014.”
UUs responded to that call. Annette Marquis, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s LGBTQ and Multicultural Ministries program director and one of the coordinators of UU participation, estimated that 1,500 UUs from across the continent came to march. “We had initially been hoping for 500, but the numbers just kept building,” she said. “It was pretty amazing.”
Many participating UUs wore yellow Standing on the Side of Love shirts, which were easy to pick out in the throngs of marchers. “We were all marching together at the beginning,” said Marquis. “Then as the march went on there was some separation among our groups, but that really just made our shirts more visible, I think, because it seemed like we just kept coming.”
Standing on the Side of Love is a social justice campaign of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
UUA President Peter Morales marched with the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, president and general minister of the United Church of Christ, and two of Black’s senior colleagues. The UUA and several other UU groups were partners with the NAACP and a broad coalition of religious, political, and civil rights groups in support of the march.
UU congregations in North Carolina have long supported the NAACP’s initiatives around voting rights and other issues. The Rev. John Saxon, lead minister of the UU Fellowship of Raleigh, said the day was “energizing and exhausting and rewarding. I hope that when history is written this is going to be a shining moment in the history of our state, a turning point, a time when people came together across race and class and different interests to promote a vision of the common good.”
Saxon said close to 20 members of his congregation had been arrested at Moral Monday events in Raleigh during 2013. There were no arrests at the February 8 march.
UU congregations in North Carolina threw themselves into organizing mode for Saturday’s march, providing food, transportation, and home hospitality.
In an email inviting UUs to the march, President Morales said the march had national implications. “This isn’t just about North Carolina,” he wrote in January. “Just as Arizona became the flashpoint for immigration reform in 2010, immigration reform is a national issue. North Carolina represents how states across the country are trying to take away people’s right to vote. Today, it’s North Carolina, but tomorrow it could be, and perhaps already is, your state.”
According to the ACLU, close to half of the states in the U.S. have implemented some form of voting restrictions in recent years, making it harder for people to vote, particularly people of color, students, and people with disabilities. These tactics range from voter ID laws to the elimination of early voting and same-day voter registration to new restrictions on voter registration drives and barriers to voting for people with criminal convictions.
The voting restrictions in North Carolina include a strict voter ID requirement, reductions in the length of the early voting period, and an expansion of the ability to challenge voters.
All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C., sent 200 people to the rally. In 1965 a former All Souls assistant minister, the Rev. James Reeb, was fatally attacked on the streets of Selma, where he had gone to participate in a march for voting rights.
The Rev. Cathy Rion Starr, minister of Social Justice at All Souls, helped lead the church’s delegation to Raleigh. “It was an incredible, inspiring, wonderful day,” she said. “Because of our personal history it mattered for us to be in Raleigh.”
She said she was inspired by the broad coalition that she saw represented among the marchers. “This is a coalition grounded in love and hope and possibility and not fueled solely by anger and frustration. It’s very uplifting to see what people in North Carolina are doing in the face of extreme politics. I came away totally inspired by how we might build that kind of movement in other parts of the country.”
The Rev. Clark Olsen, who had been with Reeb when he was beaten in Selma, participated in last week’s march in Raleigh as well. Clark, a retired minister, now lives in Asheville, N.C. At a ceremony before the march, Morales presented Clark with a “Courageous Love Award” from the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. The awards recognize “individuals or organizations that have exhibited courageous love and touched hearts.”
The Rev. Jay Leach, senior minister at Charlotte’s Unitarian Universalist Church, marched with many of his church congregants. He was quoted in the Charlotte Observer afterward. “The eyes of the nation are on Raleigh,” Leach said. “We’re holding up a vision to be the best we can as a state. We’re not putting down, we’re lifting up and saying to whoever is in power: let’s do the best we can for all our kids, all our teachers, and all our voters.”
Photograph (above): UUA President Peter Morales (left) joined three of the senior leaders of the United Church of Christ in the February 8 “Moral March” in Raleigh, N.C.: the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president; the Rev. Dr. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister of Local Church Ministries; and the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister of Justice and Witness Ministries (© Sandy Sorenson/UCC Justice and Witness Ministries).
- Mass Moral March, Saturday, February 8th, 2014, Raleigh, N.C. Resources assembled by the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign. (standingonthesideoflove.org)
- Historic Thousands on Jones Street People’s Assembly Coalition. Website of the coalition that organizes the annual People’s Assembly at the state capitol in Raleigh. (hkonj.com)
- Photographs of the Moral March. From the Office the UUA President. (flickr.com)