Nearly 500 Unitarian Universalists marched in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on July 13 as part of the Mass Moral Monday protests targeting the state’s voting laws, which are considered to be the most restrictive in the nation. The march drew approximately 3,500 people.
Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales joined the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, who had issued a special invitation to UUs to stand with him on Mass Moral Monday.
“We had good news when the Confederate flag came down,” Morales told marchers, referring to the removal of the flag from the South Carolina State Capitol grounds after the massacre of nine black people in a Charleston church in June, “but the voter suppression law might as well have been printed on Confederate flag stationery and it, too, must come down.”
The crowd marched to the federal courthouse from a nearby plaza shortly after the close of the first day of a trial challenging the state’s voting laws, in which Barber and the U.S. Department of Justice are among the plaintiffs.
In his keynote address, Barber—who calls the current movement “Our Selma”—repeatedly referred to the lives lost and blood shed during the civil rights movement. And he invoked two white Unitarian Universalists—the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo—who were murdered by racists in 1965 in Alabama while fighting for voting rights for black Americans.
“We need to remember that these rights were won by blood,” Barber told the crowd. “Blood has been shed, back then and right now. How dare the tea party trample on the blood of our martyrs? How dare the Koch brothers, with their money, try to violate our rights that were written in blood? Fifty years after the Voting Rights Act was signed in blood, how dare somebody try to use political power to desecrate the blood of the martyrs? How dare they desecrate the graves and the memory and the blood of Martin and Medgar and James Reeb and Jimmie Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo and four girls in a Birmingham church and nine souls in a Charleston church?
“We must resist this sin because too many have died!” he continued. “So you want to know why we’ve come to Winston-Salem? You want to know why this is our Selma? We have come to recommit and re-consecrate ourselves back to the movement. We will not let what was won be taken away. We will restore the dream.”
The plaintiffs in North Carolina NAACP v. McCrory allege the laws were passed to suppress black and Hispanic voters, which the state denies. North Carolina is one of twenty-two states that have passed stricter voting laws in recent years, eighteen in Republican-controlled legislatures. North Carolina’s new law reduced the number of early voting days, ended same-day voter registration, and stopped a program to preregister high school students. It was amended in 2013 by the Republican-dominated legislature immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, which required that states with a history of racial discrimination, including North Carolina, get federal approval before making changes to voting laws.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 has special meaning to Unitarian Universalists, because President Lyndon B. Johnson invoked Reeb’s murder in persuading Congress to pass the law.
The trial is expected to last three weeks, according to the New York Times, and will have an impact on voting rights not only in North Carolina, but also across the United States.
UUs from nineteen states and Washington, D.C., traveled to Winston-Salem, including at least forty UU ministers and UUA Moderator Jim Key, according to Susan Leslie, the UUA’s congregational advocacy and witness director. At Mass Moral Monday, organized by the North Carolina NAACP, many UUs wore yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirts and carried SSL banners.
Many UUs attended worship services the day before the rally at the UU Fellowship of Winston-Salem and the UU Church of Greensboro that focused on voting rights. Many also attended a service at Union Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, at which Barber, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and local religious leaders spoke. On Monday morning, before the rally and march, about 250 UUs attended a teach-in led by the North Carolina NAACP, which focused on resistance to racial violence, voting suppression, and more, Leslie said.
Morales said it was gratifying to see a sea of yellow, with the large number of UUs wearing Standing on the Side of Love shirts and carrying banners.
“I and hundreds of other Unitarian Universalists participated in the voting rights demonstration in Winston-Salem for the same reason that hundreds of UUs went to Selma fifty years ago. We did it because our faith compelled us,” Morales said afterwards. “We went because to suppress a human being’s ability to vote is a direct attack on that person’s worth and dignity. We went because supporting another person’s fundamental rights is one of the ways that we stand on the side of love.”