The Emergence of Moral Mondays in the South
Moral Mondays refers to a burgeoning mass movement that had its roots in efforts to defend voter rights in North Carolina. Thousands of activists have been mobilizing across the South over the last year inspired by Moral Mondays. They are fighting back against draconian efforts to destroy the right of people to vote, workers’ and women’s rights, and for progressive policies in general. Paradoxically, many progressives in the South and elsewhere have not heard of this budding movement.
Moral Mondays began as the annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street People's Assembly (HKonJ) in 2006 to promote progressive politics in North Carolina. Originally a coalition of 16 organizations, initiated by the state’s NAACP, it has grown to include 150 organizations today promoting a multi-issue agenda. In 2006, its task was to pressure the state’s Democratic politicians to expand voting rights and support progressive legislation on a variety of fronts.
With the election of a tea-party government in that state in 2012, the thrust of Moral Mondays shifted to challenging the draconian policies threatening to turn back gains made by people of color, workers, women, environmentalists and others. Public protests at the state house weekly in the spring of 2013 during the state legislative session led to over 1,000 arrests for civil disobedience and hundreds of thousands of hits on MM websites. Similar movements have spread throughout the South (Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida) and in some states in the Midwest and Southwest (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Missouri).
To kick off the spring 2014 protests, MM organizers called a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina on February 8 which brought out at least 80,000 protestors. Rev. William Barber, a key organizer of the movement, has grounded this new movement in history, suggesting that the South is in the midst of the “third reconstruction.” The first reconstruction, after the Civil War, consisted of Black and white workers struggling to create a democratic South (which would have impacted on the North as well). They elected legislators who wrote new state constitutions to create democratic institutions in that region for the first time. This first reconstruction was destroyed by white racism and the establishment of Jim Crow segregation.
The second reconstruction occurred between Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 and President Nixon’s 1968 “Southern Strategy.” During this period formal segregation was overturned, Medicare and Medicaid were established, and Social Security was expanded. Blacks and whites benefited. Dr. King’s 1968 Poor People’s Campaign envisioned a defense and expansion of the second reconstruction.
Now we are in the midst of a third reconstruction, according to Barber. Political mobilizations today, like those of the first reconstruction, are based on what was called in the 1860s “fusion” politics; that is bringing all activists—Black, Brown, white, gay/straight, workers, environmentalists—together. Fusion politics assumes that only a mass movement built on everyone’s issues can challenge the billionaire economic elites such as the Koch brothers and their Wall Street collaborators with masses of people (the 99 percent). Fusion politics, he says, requires an understanding of the fact that every issue is interconnected causally with every other issue. Therefore, democracy, civil rights, labor, women’s, gay/lesbian, and environmental movements must act together (http://youtu.be/sOMn8jLjVLE).
At the February action in Raleigh five general demands were articulated as guides for their spring activism. While economic, political, and historical forces vary from state to state the demands can serve as a model for action elsewhere as well. The North Carolina demands are:
- Secure pro-labor, anti-poverty policies that insure economic sustainability;
- Provide well-funded, quality public education for all;
- Stand up for the health of every North Carolinian by promoting health care access and environmental justice across all the state's communities;
- Address the continuing inequalities in the criminal justice system and ensure equality under the law for every person, regardless of race, class, creed, documentation or sexual preference;
- Protect and expand voting rights for people of color, women, immigrants, the elderly and students to safeguard fair democratic representation.
The MM Demands and the Situation in Indiana
As to labor rights, poverty, and economic sustainability, Indiana trends mirror the national decline in union membership to a 97 year low. Only 11.3 percent of the American workforce is in unions. Hoosier union membership was 9.3 percent in 2013, almost a 2 percent decline since 2011. Former Governor Mitch Daniels ended collective bargaining for state workers his first day in office in 2005 and signed a new Right-to-Work law at the end of his second term in 2012.
The war on workers paralleled the increases in poverty and the decline in economic well-being in the state. Poverty rates in 2012 included 22 percent of children, 7 percent of seniors, 15.1 percent of women, and included 41 percent of single-parent families. The total poverty rate in Indiana was 15.6 percent with 13.5 percent of Hoosiers living with food insecurity, and 7.15 percent in extreme poverty (living on less than $2 a day). Low income families totaled 32 percent of all families with 24 percent of workers in low wage jobs.
To quote the Indiana Institute for Working Families:
“…more than 1 in 5 children live in poverty and 47 percent are low-income (more than all neighbor states, including Kentucky); more than 1 million Hoosiers over the age of 18 are in poverty and 2.24 million are low-income; more than 70% of Hoosier jobs are in occupations that pay less than 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines – that’s less than $39,060 for the same family of three.... we have a larger share of jobs in occupations that pay at or below poverty wages ($19,530 for a family of three) and jobs that pay at or below minimum wage than all neighbor states, including Kentucky; and wages have declined for lower- and middle-income Hoosiers over the past decade, while worker productivity has soared.” (Derek Thomas, “Cato Study Disingenuously Presents Molehills as Mountains,” Indiana Institute for Working Families, August 23, 2013).
As to education, 87 percent of Hoosier adults have a high school education, 23.4 percent with a college degree, while high school graduation rates stand at 77 percent (ranked 31 of 50 states) and 64 percent of college students have debt averaging $27, 886. Indiana led the way in establishing charter schools and vouchers for attendees while budgets for public education have been cut significantly.
Highlighting health care, Governor Pence has refused to allow Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act leaving over 400,000 economically marginalized Hoosiers without any form of health care. In a recent report prepared by the U.S. Census Bureau, Hoosiers were more likely to be without health insurance than Americans in general (The Vincennes Sun-Commercial, September 25, 2013).
Indiana is a state that fails miserably in terms of environmental justice. Denise Abdul-Rahman, Indiana NAACP Environmental Climate Justice chairperson, reported on two coal-fired power plants in the state that produce unacceptable amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions by federal government standards. She reported on an NAACP study finding that seventy-five of 378 such plants nationally were graded a failure, affecting some four million people with low incomes. Fifty-three percent of those exposed to the excessive emissions are people of color. Abdul-Rahman also pointed out that the state NAACP will be investigating coal ash storage from other states in Indiana, sewage overflow into surface waters, and the progress of recovery of Superfund sites. (Rebecca Townsend, “Confronting Environmental Justice,” Nuvo, July 17, 2013).
An equitable criminal justice system and equality under the law have been on the national agenda for years. National data are replicated in each state. Evidence from 2003-2006 (Christopher Hartney and Linh Vuong, “Created Equal: Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the US Criminal Justice System,” National Council on Crime and Delinquency, 2009) suggests that African Americans experience over twice the arrest frequencies as whites and higher in particular categories of crimes such as drug possession and violent crimes. People of color experience stiffer sentences, higher rates of incarceration, longer probation periods, and higher percentages of convicted criminals on death row. Rates of arrests, punishments, and incarcerations of Black youth exceed those of whites. Mother Jones investigated incarceration rates in the United States in 2010. The majority of the two million in jail are people of color. In Indiana, with an African American population representing 8 percent of the state’s total population, 42 percent of the prison population is Black (http://www.gibbsmagazine.com/blacks_in_prisons.htm).
Other forms of discrimination recently displayed in Indiana include laws prohibiting same sex marriage and efforts to add this existing prohibition to the Indiana constitution. In addition, state laws have been approved that are designed to shrink and eliminate women’s rights to control their own bodies, including defunding and over-regulating Planned Parenthood health care delivery everywhere in the state.
Finally, Indiana has been in the forefront in establishing voter suppression laws. The state established in 2005 one of the first laws mandating photo identification requirements for voter registration. ALEC model legislation has since spread all across the country, disenfranchising people of color, poorer voters, elderly citizens, and demographic groups more likely to vote for Democratic candidates for public office.
Indiana and a Moral Mondays Movement
The threats to economic, social, and political justice in Indiana are not unique. Some states have even worse records on economic and health indicators. Some states penalize people of color even more than Indiana in terms of education, rights and privileges, and the construction of safety nets for the most needy. But the record for meeting the needs of Hoosiers in a number of areas has been declining for at least a decade. And given the threat to democracy that is spreading all across the land, campaigns to fight back and to rebuild the dream for a better future must rise up in each and every state based on local contexts and coalitions of progressive political forces.
The essay opened with the question, “Does Indiana Need a Moral Mondays Movement?” The answer is clear. It does.