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.”http://chapelboro.com/news/state-news/moral-march-draws-tens-thousands/
TRIANGLE – You can vote online for your local favorites as the Greater Raleigh Sports Council has announced the nominees for their annual awards, to be presented in February at an “Evening of Champions” ceremony.
UNC soccer star Crystal Dunn is nominated alongside Chapel Hill High School soccer star Ben Fisher for the Amateur Athletics Award, presented to the Triangle’s top amateur athlete. Longtime East Chapel Hill tennis coach Lindsey Linker is nominated for the Community Spirit Award, honoring a career of community service.
And two Tar Heels are nominated for the Council’s inaugural Kay Yow Champion Award, honoring community leaders who have made impacts on the lives of others. UNC women’s basketball head coach Sylvia Hatchell is up for that honor, as well as former Tar Heel baseball player Chase Jones, who founded the Vs. Cancer Foundation and started the “BaseBald” tradition of baseball players shaving their heads to raise money for cancer research.
You can vote online for your favorites up to once a day at www.thesportscouncil.org/eoc/nominees.shtml.
The Carrboro branch of the Orange County Public Library is presenting a new photography exhibit featuring the work of Sophie Steiner, a teen photographer who lost her battle with cancer last year at the age of 14.
The exhibit is called “Life is a Beautiful Thing.” It features Steiner’s pictures and writings, along with other photos and reflections submitted by her peers.
The exhibit runs through March 31. A reception will be held at the library (inside McDougle Middle School) on Sunday, January 26 from 2:00-4:30.
Orange County’s Human Relations Commission is marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act with an event at the Carrboro Century Center on Sunday, January 26.
It’s entitled “Equal Justice Under the Law: Are We There Yet?” It will feature a discussion moderated by UNC professor Gene Nichol, the director of UNC’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. Panelists include State Senator Valerie Foushee, civil rights attorney Al McSurely, and John “Blackfeather” Jeffries, a veteran of the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s.
The event will begin at 2:30 p.m. and run until 5:00. Everyone is welcome.
Do you know a senior citizen who deserves recognition for their volunteer work? Home Instead Senior Care is seeking nominations from now through March 1 for their “Salute to Senior Service” program, recognizing seniors 65 and older who volunteer at least 15 hours a month of their time.
To nominate someone, visit SaluteToSeniorService.com.
As part of a national rural economic development program, the city of Mebane has received $1.2 million from the Piedmont Electric Membership Corporation to purchase two fire trucks and help build its new fire station.
The money is actually a zero-interest loan—part of the USDA’s Rural Economic Development Loan and Grant program, which provides funds to local cooperatives like Piedmont Electric, who pass those funds to local organizations to help create jobs in rural areas. Mebane’s fire station project is slated to create 12 new jobs while reducing response times during emergency calls.
Once the funds are repaid, they’ll be loaned out again to support other projects in the area.http://chapelboro.com/news/news-around-time/recognizing-heroes-past-present/
CHAPEL HILL-This graduation weekend in Chapel Hill is also a time for class reunions. The class of 1963 will host its 50th class reunion, always a milestone of sorts. James Reston Jr., then a Morehead Scholar, now a famous writer and author of 13 books, will be talking to one of the reunion sessions this weekend about the civil rights struggle in which he participated as a student from 1959 to 1963.
I asked James Reston to share his recollections of that time for us.
***Listen to the interview.***