Each year on the second Saturday in February, the North Carolina NAACP holds a march called “Historic Thousands on Jones Street”—“HK on J” for short.
Usually it draws a few thousand people. But this year, tens of thousands converged on Raleigh—hundreds from Orange County alone—for what became the largest civil rights rally in recent U.S. history. All to carry on a movement that’s still less than a year old—and showing no signs of slowing down.
Listen to the full report (in two parts), from WCHL’s Aaron Keck with comments from 13 Orange County residents and elected officials.
They came by the hundreds from Orange County, by the thousands and the tens of thousands from across the state and across the South—and they all came with a purpose that was both widely varied and steadfastly united.
“I marched for social justice,” said Orange County Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier.
“I marched because I believe in a moral politics,” said newly appointed State Representative Graig Meyer.
“I marched because I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else,” said Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle.
“I loved what Rev. Barber said about ‘everybody wants a moral universe,'” said Alicia Stemper, “and I marched to make my statement that I too want to live in a moral North Carolina.”
“I marched because I’m a strong proponent of social and environmental justice, education–I’m an educator–and for universal health care coverage and access to health care,” said Carrboro Alderman Randee Haven-O’Donnell.
“I marched for the values that OC holds dear: education, (the) environment, equity, women’s rights, voting rights, (and) the rights of people to be represented by their state government in a real way,” said Orange County Commissioner Barry Jacobs.
And County Commissioner Penny Rich said she marched for a lot of things. “I marched mainly for women,” she said, “(and) I also marched for education…I marched because I believe in equal rights for equal love…I marched because I think it’s important that municipalities and counties maintain their own rights to govern…
“(And) I marched because, as a parent of two boys in North Carolina, it’s my job to make sure that their home is always someplace they want to come home to, and not move away from.”
They called it the “Moral March,” a continuation of the weekly “Moral Monday” demonstrations that galvanized progressives against the GOP-led General Assembly last year. Organizers expected about 10,000 to show—but as more and more busloads kept coming in, it became quickly apparent the final tally would be much higher.
Ashley Melzer was on hand to take pictures for Planned Parenthood. “When I first got up to the parking deck, there was no one there,” she said. “(But) when it got to be 10:30 or 11:00, all of a sudden there were people on every level, looking out (and) waving flags, everywhere.”
On the street, Town Council member Sally Greene arrived on one of two buses sent by the Community Church of Chapel Hill. “There were Unitarians from all over the country there,” she said. “We got over to Raleigh and emerged from the buses, and all of these banners that the Unitarians were carrying were orange banners with their slogan of ‘Standing on the Side of Love.'”
Randee Haven-O’Donnell was lucky enough to find a spot near the front. “There were hordes of people, crowds and crowds of people behind us,” she said. “There was a real sense of togetherness.”
Further back, Allison DeMarco was a veteran of several “HK on J” rallies—but never anything like this. “There were lots of people around us, young and old, and from all over–I saw buses from Goldsboro, there was a guy behind me who was coming down from Hertford–so it was really neat to see all these people gathering together,” she said.
For Annette Stone of Carrboro, the rally was a family experience. “My daughter was with me,” she said. “When I said what I was doing, she said ‘I want to be there too.'”
And Graig Meyer had meetings in Orange County that morning—but made it to Raleigh just in time.
“When I got to Fayetteville Street and saw the marchers coming the other way, and how many of them there were–it was a big blast of excitement in my face,” he said. “It was pretty amazing.”
I spoke with more than a dozen Orange County residents this weekend, regular folks and elected officials and everyone in between. They’d all been to Raleigh. They’d all come back energized. They all had their own unique experiences and their own unique reasons for marching—but in keeping with the intended spirit of the “Moral Monday” movement, they said those differences only made the whole experience stronger.
That’s a sentiment Ashley Melzer shared with County Commissioner Penny Rich and Town Council member Lee Storrow.
“(I was impressed by) all these different organizations working together, and all these different people: there were babies, there were old people, seeing a rabbi speak, and then an imam, and then hearing the reverend, people of different faiths,” said Melzer. Rich noted the wide variety of interest groups on hand: “I saw Carolina Jews for Justice, the NAACP, the teachers, (and) the women’s groups,” she said.
Storrow agreed, adding that the feeling of “collectively working together was, I thought, really empowering and really energizing.”
That in fact is the idea–at least according to the leader of the movement, NAACP state chapter president Rev. William Barber, whose speech on Saturday focused on the connections between all the disparate issues that have moved progressives to take to the streets.
“Reverend Barber speaks so eloquently of all the issues, in a way that encourages everybody from all walks of life to participate,” said County Commissioner Pelissier.
Carrboro Mayor Lavelle agreed. “(Rev. Barber’s speech) practically made your heart stop,” she said. “He spoke quite a bit about how this wasn’t necessarily a Democratic or a Republican issue, this wasn’t necessarily a conservative-versus-liberal issue, this wasn’t an us-versus-them issue, this was a North Carolina issue.”
Lavelle was only one of many Orange County elected officials on hand Saturday. Orange County’s elected officials have been vocal in support of the “Moral Monday” movement from the beginning, and Saturday was no exception: the crowd at “HK on J” included several Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board members, Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens, a majority of the Orange County Board of Commissioners, nearly half the Chapel Hill Town Council, and nearly all of the Carrboro Board of Aldermen.
County Commissioner Barry Jacobs and Carrboro Alderman Michelle Johnson both said they felt duty-bound as elected officials to be there.
“We all know that we’re under assault from a state legislature and a governor who have very little respect for many of the values we hold dear in Orange County,” Jacobs said, “and it was good to see people actually go to the streets in Raleigh, as part of a larger group, to say that we stood with our fellows.”
Johnson concurred. “The way that things are being run–this isn’t the way that I want to represent the folks that elected me,” she said. “And I feel like it’s imperative for me to be connected to a movement that’s bringing light to what’s really happening.”
Those elected officials joined hundreds of other Orange County residents, amidst a crowd that numbered in the tens of thousands. How large was the crowd? It’s always difficult to say. A press release from the NAACP estimated the crowd at 80,000-100,000, but that number’s likely inflated; Melzer says she estimated the crowd to be about 25,000-30,000, and Meyer said he guessed about 40,000.
One thing is certain: it was a larger crowd than anyone expected, and far more than any previous “HK on J” march had ever drawn. An article in The Nation magazine called it the largest civil rights march the South had seen since the 1960s. And maybe even that’s an understatement. To put the estimates into perspective: the famous Selma-to-Montgomery marches of 1965 peaked at 25,000.
“I think for every person there, each person probably represented two or three other people who had a work commitment or a kid’s soccer game or wanted to be there and couldn’t,” observes Alicia Stemper, who was also in attendance Saturday (with her partner Lavelle). “So just the sheer numbers (were) impressive.”
Regardless of the actual attendance figures, Saturday’s event was truly historic—and Orange County residents played a major role. Whether the movement will have an effect on actual policy in North Carolina remains to be seen, of course—but everyone I spoke to said they’re hopeful that a change is going to come.
“We sent a message to the State House, and we also sent a message to one another,” said Greene. “It was like no other experience to be in a crowd of that size.”
Lavelle too says the march has her feeling optimistic, in spite of everything. “Even though there’s so much despair in North Carolina about what’s been happening…surely there are people in the General Assembly who see some of the very valid points that we’re making,” she said. “And I felt like it was a demonstration that had to happen–that it was one of those days that was just really, really important.”