WASHINGTON — Nearly 51 years ago this week, Martin Luther King, Jr. exhorted the 250,000-strong March on Washington audience to “go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.”
Leaders of the “Forward Together Moral Monday” movement said on a press call Tuesday they are putting King’s words to practice by expanding the movement beyond its origins in North Carolina for a “Moral Week of Action” in 12 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Mississippi, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
The week will focus on a different social justice theme each day, starting with labor rights and fair wage issues this Friday, followed by education, criminal justice, equal protection under the law (such as LGBT rights and immigration status), women’s rights, environmental justice and health care coverage.
The movement’s North Carolina chapter, composed of the state’s NAACP and a variety of other groups, says it will hold voter registration canvasses each day after marching to the state capitol in Raleigh, culminating in a voting rights rally on Aug. 28 to commemorate the March on Washington anniversary.
“Today, statehouses like ours in North Carolina are engaging in a modern form of nullification and interposition, so we are mobilizing to critique these regressive policies,” Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, said on the call, borrowing the language of Dr. King’s speech in 1963.
Barber said that the movement — comprised of “transformative fusion coalitions led by indigenous leadership” — would be delivering a letter to the North Carolina General Assembly’s leaders asking them to meet and consider how to “repeal and repent” for the legislature’s actions. More than 900 people were arrested at the state capitol for trespassing after Republicans took the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the legislature in 2012. Protesters were reacting to bills blocking Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, reducing unemployment benefits, cutting public education funds, implementing voter identification requirements and restricting abortion access.
Barber said the legislators’ response to the letter will determine “decisions yet to be made” about potential civil disobedience actions.
Coalitions beyond North Carolina have realized that the movement energizes local activists on a variety of intersectional issues.
The Rev. Dr. Francys Johnson, who serves as president of the Georgia NAACP, said issues of concern included his state’s failure to expand Medicaid, as well as new laws allowing allowing residents with permits to carry firearms into a broad array of public places.
“The Moral Monday movement is stimulated in its ambitions by what we’ve seen in North Carolina,” Johnson said on the call. “We’re talking about how to make the next generation of Moral Monday younger, more diverse, more proactive and how to shift the political gravity in this state.”
Barber, who is careful to avoid specifically targeting Republicans (though he did criticize the tea party and the American Legislative Exchange Council’s “extremism”), frames the movement in nonpartisan terms.
“[State legislators] engaging in unconstitutional, immoral actions must be challenged and taken on with a deeper language of what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said. Using a morality framework means local coalitions can push state legislatures to adopt more progressive agendas, Barber said. “If you want to change America, you gotta think states.”