Anyone thinking about strategies of political resistance might take a long look at North Carolina’s Forward Together movement, which on Saturday held its eleventh annual Moral March outside the Raleigh statehouse. Organizers claimed that more than eighty thousand marchers had attended, surpassing the crowd at the 2014 march, which was then the largest civil-rights gathering in the South since the era of Selma and Birmingham. Reverend William Barber, the charismatic President of the North Carolina N.A.A.C.P. and the leader of Forward Together, said that the first and most abiding identity politics in the South has been white supremacy, which has split working people along racial lines. Barber said that he hopes that his movement will overcome that ideology not by choosing between civil rights and economic justice but by emphasizing both. Barber criticizes preachers and politicians who “claim the only issue we ought to be concerned about in the public square is where you stand on the issue of abortion, where you stand on the issue of homosexuality, where you stand on the issue of prayer in public school, where you stand on the issue of private-property rights, and where you stand on the issue of guns.” In his interpretation, North Carolina’s right wing has been practicing a divisive form of identity politics, and the Forward Together movement is offering a universalist response.
The movement’s roots lie in an annual rally of progressive groups outside the statehouse, a “people’s assembly” that the North Carolina N.A.A.C.P. first convened in the winter of 2006. In its early years, the movement pressed a long-standing Democratic state government to address racial inequality in the criminal-justice system, raise school funding and the minimum wage, and ease ballot access. Organizers claimed that thirty-five hundred people attended in 2007. Then, in 2010, with an infusion of right-wing money and election strategy, Republicans took control of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction; in 2012, they won the governor’s mansion. Suddenly, the state became a laboratory for Tea Party governance, with a special hostility toward the poor, African Americans, and gay, lesbian, and transgender people. Republicans passed racially targeted voting restrictions (some which were since found unconstitutional in federal court), abortion limits, and environmental rollbacks. They launched a sustained attack on the political independence of the University of North Carolina. They turned down the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion and declined federal funds to extend unemployment benefits. They pressed a constitutional measure banning same-sex marriage, and, in 2016, called an emergency session to enact House Bill 2, the notorious “bathroom law assigning users of public restrooms to the facilities matching their ‘biological gender.’ ”
In the summer of 2013, as the state’s part-time legislature worked through its first season of one-party rule, the Forward Together movement leaped to the front of a rapidly growing resistance. Led by Reverend Barber, the movement held Monday-afternoon gatherings at the statehouse to bear what it called “moral witness” to the legislature’s actions. The gatherings grew from dozens of ministers and activists to hundreds and, by mid-summer, as many as five thousand people. After some protesters were arrested for refusing to leave the statehouse, the movement seized on choreographed arrests for civil disobedience as part of its strategy. By the time the legislature closed its session, in August, more than a thousand people had gone to jail.
The next Moral March, held in February, 2014, drew a crowd estimated at between fifty thousand and eighty thousand people, and Barber announced plans to send young organizers across the state that summer, preparing for the fall’s midterm elections. In many respects, 2014 was a disappointment. Republicans, who had gerrymandered the state after their 2010 victories, won a slim majority of votes overall and kept a veto-proof majority of seats in the state legislature. Then, in 2016, things began to move in the other direction. Federal courts invalidated voter-suppression laws and ordered North Carolina to redraw twenty-eight legislative districts. On the ground, movement mobilization unseated incumbent Republican Governor Pat McCrory, who had been closely identified with the legislature’s agenda, and gave Democrats control of the state’s Supreme Court and Attorney General’s office. Republicans held their veto-proof legislative majority, but the progressive resistance of the Forward Together movement became threaded through the life of North Carolina. Today, Barber holds rallies and marches throughout the state, and a network of activists is prepared to descend on the legislature on overnight notice. Last Tuesday evening, a hundred or so people filled a Durham church, answering the N.A.A.C.P.’s call to show solidarity with a Durham-born asylum-seeker who was facing deportation.
As Barber put it on Saturday, the movement exists “so preachers can fight for fifteen and workers can say ‘black lives matter,’ and a white woman can stand with her black sister for voting rights, and a black man can stand for a woman’s right to health care, and L.G.B.T.Q. folk can stand for religious liberty, and straight people can stand up for . . . queer people, and a Muslim imam can stand with an undocumented worker.” This litany of identities might horrify those who argue that Democrats have fallen away from common appeals, but the premise of the movement is that a universalist program—for health care, voting rights, reproductive choice, and higher wages—begins in building coalitions among people whom politics have driven apart. The point of the new coalition is to achieve for the first time what he calls the “justice and community and the general welfare and the domestic tranquility and equal protection under the law” that American Constitutions, state and federal, have always promised but never quite made real.
On Saturday, an unseasonable seventy-degree day, with early magnolias already beginning to bloom, the march resembled a constitutional convention scripted by Walt Whitman. Traditional ministers from the black church shared the stage with Planned Parenthood officials and self-described queer Muslims. There were doctors, union leaders, environmental activists, rabbis, and white mainline Protestants. The N.A.A.C.P. is so central to progressive political life in the state that it fields nearly all-white delegations from the mountainous western counties. Some participants were dressed for church, some for class or the golf course, and a few for a shift at the anarchist bicycle co-op. Some of the loudest cheers were for the first of three Muslim speakers.
None of this is just good luck or organic affinity. The annual march has been the most visible face of what Barber calls “four years of hard work and seven years of getting to know each other.” When Planned Parenthood and NARAL protesters raced to the legislature in 2013, to oppose new abortion restrictions, they did so as part of the Forward Together movement. Barber, in turn, has thrown the movement’s numbers and energy behind solidarity with small and vulnerable populations, such as North Carolinian Muslims, asylum-seekers, and transgender people. Shared civil disobedience has intensified the bonds. Paige Johnson, a longtime Moral March participant and senior officer of the regional Planned Parenthood organization, told me, “This coalition really is as rich and real as it seems. If you’re going to jail, we’re going with you, and one of us will be there to make sure you get home when you’re released.”
In contrast to the “leaderless” style of the Black Lives Matter movement and the collaborative organization of the Women’s March, Forward Together is hard to imagine without the central figure of Barber, a physically imposing man who uses the cadence and tonal range of the black church to convey, with arresting eloquence, a historical argument about the present. “Since last November, I’ve met some people around the country who look at me and say, ‘Rev, we’ve never this before. This is the worst we’ve ever seen,’ ” he said on Saturday. “And I’ve had to tell them, ‘Hold on now. Don’t ever say that.’ It is a desperation that gives too much power to extremism.” And, he added, “It is not historically accurate.”
The heart of Barber’s argument is that the crisis of 2016 and 2017 is the latest recurrence of a very old American pattern: a reactionary politics that splits working and middle-class people along racial lines, stokes nativism against immigrants, and blocks a politics of solidarity and common care. Barber’s touchstone is Reconstruction. “Can I teach for a moment?” he asked on Saturday. “In the nineteenth century, following the Civil War, black and white ‘fusion’ coalitions came together in the South. And together, black and white people in the eighteen-hundreds reconstructed this nation as a republic that would, in fact, guarantee liberty. It was a new birth of the nation.” But, Barber continued, “This radically democratic call evoked a violent backlash, called the Redemption movement.” Their mantra, he said, in so many words, was, “ ‘We’ve got to take our country back and make it great again.’ “ The backlash of the 1898 election, in North Carolina and across the South, was brutal: there was outright terrorism in Wilmington, where a racial massacre drove out a fusion government in a de facto coup. In 1900, a state constitutional amendment effectively disenfranchised black voters until the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This counterrevolution is Barber’s template for understanding Trump and the Tea Party: as an attack against the Obama Presidency, the demands of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the broader displacement of white power that followed the civil-rights movement. To Barber, Trump’s victory, like the Tea Party’s triumph in North Carolina, “has proven once again that racism and economic fear still too often can conjure a powerful magic.”
The cyclicality of Barber’s narrative fits an evangelical style of reading the present through Biblical precedent. He deepens this impression by drawing on actual Biblical preaching, in which Trump becomes Nebuchadnezzar, the gold-obsessed Assyrian monarch who took a megalomaniac’s pride in the walls and towers he built; the Resistance, in turn, takes the role of the enslaved Hebrews who refused to acknowledge the king’s idols. From a lesser orator, this would sound crankish. At the event, standing in Raleigh’s downtown mall, holding hands with other marchers and joining in call and response, I felt an unusual sensation: that the politics of today is continuous with the past that made it, marked by struggles that have never really ended, only ebbed, shifted, and returned. Intellectually, one knows this is true. Feeling it infusing the agenda and alliances of the day is rarer and more intense.
All of this, and the relative longevity and growth of the movement, make it a model for anti-Trump politics. At the same time, nothing about Forward Together promises easy victories. Organizers deserve some credit for the razor-thin victory of Governor Roy Cooper; his defeat of McCrory was remarkable in a Republican year. But Democrats’ biggest victories in North Carolina have been in court, where federal judges overturned voter-suppression laws and ordered the redrawing of gerrymandered state-legislative districts. Such victories, which are always uncertain, will only become less likely with each year that Trump controls appointments to the federal courts.
Forward Together also offers a warning for the increasingly popular tactics of repeatedly calling congressional representatives and, better yet, showing up to challenge them at town hall events. In North Carolina, after several years of citizen “witness,” Republicans have simply stopped listening. During a special legislative session in December, Republicans closed the viewing galleries and, out of sight, proceeded to weaken the powers of the incoming Democratic governor. But the deeper lesson of Forward Together is that the politics of “moral resistance,” as Barber calls it, stands on centuries of work, full of hard defeat as well as progress. Politics needs a strategy, but in dark times it may be just as important to believe that it matters because it is what one is called to do—whether by a religion, a constitutional inheritance, or the fact that we are one another’s sources of harm and redress.