Marching To ‘Higher Ground’

By Edrie Irvine

Saturday, February 8, 2014

This is an edited version of a first-person account of the Moral March on Raleigh.

RALEIGH, N.C. — This isn't my first time around the block. I've been to demonstrations from Chicago to New York, too many in Washington, and others in different parts of the country over the years.

Today was both very familiar and quite different. Familiar in that we're still fighting for some of the same stuff -- like abortion and women's rights, education and voting, economic justice and civil rights for all. Different, though, in that so many previous gatherings have felt unfocused or hijacked at times, Also, that while there may have been many different groups marching along the same street, it didn't mean that after the event, we'd be still working together toward the same goals. Today, I not only heard a sense of unity in the messages but felt a sense of unity in the people. I didn't walk away with that flushed sense of power I have felt at other times but more a sense of determination that the people I met along the way are committed toward positive ends, achievable ends - the path won't be smooth and victory won't come tomorrow but together they will lift each other up to reach, in Rev. Barber's words, higher ground.

On the numbers, 25-30,000 is not a stretch (I'd put it at probably closer to 20,000 than 30,000) and the representation was definitely overwhelmingly North Carolinians from the mountains to the shore. Being with Kim [Yaman, a participant in the Moral Monday demonstrations at the state capitol], I met people from all over the state, including the State Democratic Party Chair and he was impressed with how many areas of the state were represented.

I asked Kim for her impression of the day -- after all, she was at the first Moral Monday last year and at practically every one after that. She is one of the 1,000 arrested last year, and has already had her first court date (convicted) and is now looking forward to her first level appeal. So, I thought her impression would be particularly enlightening. She felt today showed the power of the grassroots movement building here in North Carolina, and she also points to the many factions who not only marched together today but have been cooperating on strategy - it's something she says is what is keeping them together as much as the charismatic Rev. Barber. She noticed particularly who was a part of the group leading the march and on the main stage as politicians in particular were told they should *not* try to come to the front but stay with the people; this isn't a political movement but a moral one -- A quick aside back to my impression, the difference is that the morality he speaks of is inclusive - I have never attended an event of this type where atheists, secularists were called out by name as being of equal moral weight.

The odious laws passed out of the General Assembly here, and the way so many of them were rammed through in the last week of the session, are hurting people across the state -- not just the voter id requirements that touch on the civil rights element, but the "motorcycle vagina" law snuck through, the drastic and deliberate defunding of education, health care, and support services for a state hit very hard by the recession. This grassroots movement is deeply personal to so many here, and the idea that the power in this state is amoral at best if not down-right immoral was palpable as she introduced me to people she knows from Moral Mondays. Of course, if you know Kim at all, you know that the conversations were serious at times but always filled with affection -- which takes me back to today's event.

Signs were clever or funny or straightforward without being mean or crude. (Rev. Barber has taken signs away at previous gatherings that he felt were untoward -- he is protective of the notion of this being a movement based on inclusion and love, not exclusion and anger.) As groups stepped off or moved along the route, the edges of one group blurred easily and fluidly with others, the pink caps and colors of Planned Parenthood mixed throughout the crowd as well as the red of education and the yellow of the UUs Standing on the Side of Love. There was a young FLOC group ringing out chants in Spanish and the health care workers in their white coats joined in loudly; Equality NC and other LGBTQ groups were well-represented.

There is a lot that has happened since the current Governor and his shadow Art Pope have taken the reins here in North Carolina, and the current General Assembly was seated -- and from those I saw and spoke to today, what has happened has cut to the core of these Southerners' identity and sense of what is just and right. As one woman told me, "We are having things taken away that we have fought for already, that we are proud of, that made us not South Carolina or Mississippi. There is no moral ambiguity to what the effect has been, of what the intention has been."

This is a movement, not a moment. It can be replicated elsewhere, with the right leaders and the right mix of groups and participants. They aren't trying to shout down the opposition, or outmaneuver them in clever. They know the millions of Koch and Pope dollars pouring into races from county races to the U.S. Senate are efforts to take away the voice of those who live here. They know they need to support legislators and school officials willing to stand up to the Powers-That-Be. I think they are gaining the courage to take the citizen responsibility to create the change they want to see.

Finally, I will carry with me one phrase that captured my attention from the end of the speeches given today, of course, from Rev. Barber: "higher ground."

I suspect we will hear that phrase many more times, as we strive to reach a higher moral leverage position, a higher vantage point, a higher purpose than the greed to which the people I met today are reacting. We Will Stand on Higher Ground has a ring of the Religious Left and a resonance that transcends religion. It may be the answer to the false and corrosive "morality" the conservatives have been pushing for too long. Higher Ground.