'Historic Thousands' march to legislature

Several thousand activists parade through downtown Raleigh to support a 14-point agenda of social reforms
Kristin Collins, News & Observer, Feb. 10, 2008

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RALEIGH - The crowd flowed down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and parted like a river around the Capitol. Carrying signs proclaiming support for unionization, vegetarianism, abolishing the death penalty, ending the Iraq war and countless other causes, the marchers converged in front of the Legislative Building.

"The people united," they screamed, "will never be divided."

Saturday was the second time in two years that protesters from dozens of social reform groups took over the streets of downtown Raleigh to demand a laundry list of legislative changes.

Organizers say the marches mark the beginning of a new activism in North Carolina. They have hopes of coalescing into a movement as powerful as the civil rights struggle, forcing state legislators to adopt reforms that aid minorities and the poor.

"I think we all understand that we have incredible opportunity to effect real change in '08," said Paige Johnson of Orange County, a Planned Parenthood employee carrying a sign demanding sex education in public schools. "We're united in a way we've never been before."

Several thousand people gathered at Chavis Park and then marched a mile and a half to Jones Street. The march, dubbed Historic Thousands on Jones Street, is organized around an ambitious 14-point agenda with an undetermined price tag that would likely reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

"The constitution says it's our mandate to care for everybody," said Rev. William Barber, head of the state branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "We're calling on North Carolina to remember her soul."

Leadership and tactics

The marches are largely the work of Barber, who shortly after taking the reins of the NAACP in 2006 gathered the leaders of more than a dozen statewide organizations to hammer out a common agenda. He has since signed up more than 70 groups willing to rally with him.

Barber says that although blacks and whites are no longer separated by law, minorities still face huge disparities and are largely ignored by a state legislature influenced more by powerful lobbyists than the plight of the poor.

Minorities in North Carolina are far more likely than whites to drop out of school, to be imprisoned, to live in poverty, to be the victims of crime and to die young.

"We need a movement that will lift the hopes of every child," Barber screamed to the crowd Saturday. "We need a movement that will not leave the poor to fight by themselves."

Time well chosen

Some lawmakers say they are impressed with Barber's strategy. Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, said that he hears from Barber and other NAACP leaders regularly and that the annual Jones Street march sends a message that the group speaks for the masses.

"This agenda may take years to go forward, but if you do not have a large agenda, you will not get change," Luebke said. "Look at the civil rights movement. If you go back to the 1950s, most white people thought that black demands for equality in the South were a joke."

Rory McVeigh, a sociology professor in the University of Notre Dame's Center for the Study of Social Movements and Social Change, said Barber has chosen a time that is ripe for reform.

"When public opinion starts shifting, when people are dissatisfied, when 70 percent of the people don't approve of the president's job performance, that's an opportunity," McVeigh said.

GOP lawmakers react

However, the message of the group -- peppered on Saturday with signs demanding the impeachment of President Bush -- does not resonate with most Republican lawmakers and failed to gain much traction in the Democratically controlled legislature last year.

"There was nothing on that agenda that was practical or within our power or something I wanted to do," said Rep. Paul Stam, an Apex Republican who is House minority leader.

He was one of several Republicans who said that the reforms would be too expensive and impractical. Most said the agenda reflected liberal concerns they've been hearing for years.

"I guess I did see it," Sen. Neal Hunt, a Raleigh Republican, said of the group's agenda. "But I didn't frankly pay a lot of attention to it."

Even organizers say they were disappointed in the legislative progress they made last year.

They claimed a few small victories -- bills that improved protection for farmworkers, allowed people to register and vote on the same day, and instituted new controls on predatory lending -- but said the legislature failed to shift its fundamental priorities.

Those supporting the movement said that's not cause for discouragement.

"We don't determine our agenda on the basis of what looks immediately attainable," said George Reed, director of the N.C. Council of Churches, one of the partners in the march. "At one time, desegregation of the public schools looked like an unattainable goal."

On Saturday, at least for a few hours, hope overwhelmed the long odds for the marchers who set out under a clear blue sky.

"Ain't nobody saying we can solve all the problems," Ciscero T. Warren Jr., who works in the mailroom at the state Department of Administration, said as he marched down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. "But we can start to work on them." or (919) 829-4881

Here's what Saturday's marchers say they want from state legislators.

* Increase funding for failing schools.
* Raise the minimum wage and create more programs for the poor.
* Provide public health care for all residents who cannot afford insurance and address the causes of diseases that disproportionately affect the poor.
* Pay reparations to those affected by an 1898 race riot in Wilmington and by a state program in which black women were forcibly sterilized between 1947 and 1977.
* Establish public financing of elections.
* Increase funding to historically black colleges and universities.
* Document and redress past discrimination in state hiring and contracting.
* Increase funding for affordable housing and institute protections against predatory lending and foreclosures.
* Abolish the death penalty and mandatory sentencing laws.
* Establish an environmental job corps for those who don't graduate from high school.
* Allow state employees to unionize and support unionization of workers at a Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Bladen County.
* Protect immigrants' rights.
* Increase funding for civil rights enforcement agencies and make hate crimes a felony.
* Pass a resolution demanding an end to the Iraq war.

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