On the Moral March

I didn’t plan to write about the Mass Moral March, (also known as HKonJ) which took place this last weekend in Raleigh, North Carolina. But I was chided by another minister for tweeting about the Olympics opening ceremony, when the Raleigh march was surely more weighty and deserving material. I demurred, but I thought I should look further into it.

I watched some videos, looked at a bunch of pictures taken by participants (good to see what’s valued) and read news reports, blog posts and official organizing material.

To be clear: I don’t dispute that tens of thousands of people participated and that many (perhaps most) found it personally meaningful and vitally enriching. Also, that North Carolina’s political climate has pushed far to the right. But if the Unitarian Universalist part — I’ve heard there were a thousand or so present — is any sign of what Movementarianism might be (or become), we should fold our tents up now and save our heirs the bother. Not only must we be careful to cultivate a sensitive and responsive character, but also cultivate shrewd and effective methods for what we must be. What must be, not just doing what we desire.

I’ll state up front that I’m not impressed by the politics of the mass march. For one, I live in Washington, D.C., where they used to be common, and have seen them deflate in numbers and influence for years. Today, they border on performance art. (See also, “Getting arrested to make a point.”) So the New York Times didn’t cover it? It wasn’t a national story. (It was well covered in the North Carolina press.)

And even when I took part in marches as a younger man, though the 90s, it was clear that their best days and staunchest advocates predated me. So the Raleigh march’s tag — “Most massive moral rally in the South since Selma!” — is a tell: wistful Boomers, here’s your second chance. And so while there are some people who honestly think they’re doing some good by marching, I can’t help but spy some Civil War Rights Era re-enacting going on. Fine if that’s your goal, but that’s not what’s needed.

This march had three problems, for which there’s no easy answer except substituting another action.

First, there’s a name for New Englanders who come South to score political points; two actually. Carpetbagger is one; legislator is another. (Did you notice how some of the marchers made their North Carolina-ness plain on their T-shirts or signs?) It’s no secret that some of quite conservative members of Southern legislatures are about as Southern as a Moxie or a lobster roll. This is not 1964; the politics have changed, and Bull Connor is dead. (But you still need to live in North Carolina to vote there. Solidarity without power isn’t worth return postage.)

Second, can anyone for the life of me describe the desired and actionable outcomes of the march, in 25 words or less? The agenda was a long menu. Easy to imagine a fence-sitting legislator to say no to all of it, rather than having to defend parts of it. (I’ve read about legislation being introduced by HKonJ but — guessing at a few titles — don’t see anything that made it to committee.)

Third, the march went to such effort to be moral and “non-partisan” (as described in the organizing documents) yet looked both under-powered and coded as Democratic. Were there advocacy trainings? Legislator visits (by actual North Carolinians)? If so, I’ll withdraw some of my objections.

The various goals of the march organizers are quite noble and praiseworthy, and so perhaps that’s all the reason some out-of-state Unitarian Universalists needed to show up. But I’d have sent cash to pay c4s to organize North Carolinians instead.

4 Replies to “On the Moral March”

  1. All interesting and valid points but to me, your first remark was a dead giveaway: someone actually *chided you on Twitter for not Tweeting the right thing.* That says so much to me about relevance, which is not something that can be coerced, no matter how much well-meaning people may wish it so. As someone who spends a lot of time using social media, observing how it does or does not work to make or spread news (let alone “the good news,”) I found it amusing to see UU ministers who otherwise don’t “waste their time” on social media take to it to promote their great action at the Moral March, including loads of smiling selfies. It was a perfect illustration of Unitarian Universalist isolationism, terminal uniqueness and self-congratulatory tendencies: to barge into a lively, ongoing, daily, passionate conversation and say, “I’m here!! Now me, me, me!!” Very interesting dynamic. I found that I was much more drawn to follow the story from those activists who shared what they were doing in a way that didn’t make it all about them, but for whom the showing up seemed a natural and genuine extension of the ongoing commitments that they share with the broader online community on a regular basis. So FWIW, that was a big take-away for me about social justice and social media.

  2. I would state upfront that people who live in Washington DC are probably the least perceptive about mass marches as political tools as anyone in the country. You live in a place where you see the result (X number of people on the Mall) but not the effort to get them there. And you live in a news media environment which decided long ago that marches were not news, no matter the numbers. (After all, a million people marched against the Iraq War and the NYT and Washington Post barely reported it. Everyone knew that the Bush Administration was going to war anyway. Why waste time or ink on the gestures of the powerless?) And Washington political knowledge is centered around Congress, for the most part, where all the action is in the middle, and where public opinion, especially committed public opinion, means nothing. DC political culture follows the money: which big PAC is getting big money to buy TV ads to move low information voters one way or another.
    The North Carolina Moral Movement is North Carolina’s. This march was another step in a long process of organizing in that state led by William Barber and the NC NAACP. NC UU’s have been participating in that Interfaith Coalition for months. They were asked to invite other UU’s around the country to join in this march. This was not some fun weekend dreamed up in Boston by the “movementarians.” I would suspect that demonstrating the eyes of the world were on North Carolina was important for their strategy.
    You contrast becoming ‘sensitive and responsive’ vs. ‘shrewd and effective’. What an odd contrast, as a religious concern. But there is also ‘hopeful and inspired’ and ‘revived’.

  3. I’m one of the NC UU ministers who signed the “Y’all Come” letter.

    We asked for numbers because we need people to see what is happening here.

    The HkonJ movement has been a powerful movement in Raleigh for 7 years. It prevented the resegregation of Wake County schools, was instrumental in creating and passing the Racial Justice Act (which was the first legislation of its kind in 2009, but has since been repealed by the current legislature), secured same day voting and many other things. I have made the trip to Raleigh from Asheville so many times since June 3 and invited my congregation to join me because I see this movement empowering North Carolinians by lifting up issues and giving the disenfranchised a voice. The Selma language might have been manipulative, but it appears to have worked 🙂 This movement is not limited to Mondays, nor to the annual HKonJ rally in February. There are local People’s Assembly coalitions outside of Raleigh that are working on local issues — we just launched one here in Western NC, and are working on our own get out the vote efforts.

    The HkonJ’s purpose, in 25 words or less, I would say is to hold the NC government (no matter what party is in power) accountable to the people. And that purpose looks different from an issues standpoint any day of the week. So the desired and actionable outcome changes based on the issues of the moment. The coalition is working hard 365 days a year to advocate for different things on the 14 point agenda. Currently, the big push is the legal challenge to the voter suppression law that was passed last year.

    There have been multiple advocacy trainings (in fact, that’s part of what happened after the March was over on Saturday) as part of HKonJ, and lots of North Carolina residents have visited our legislators in Raleigh and locally. That’s part of what HKonJ advocates, is open conversation with legislators. And the reason you haven’t heard about the coalition before this past year is because before this administration was elected, the coalition partners were actually in conversation with the legislators!

    Anyway, the bottom line is that regardless of selfies on social media (I noticed that, too, Vicki) or whether the UUs came because they felt like it was gonna be a big fun goldenrod yellow party, it meant a GREAT DEAL to this person, who has been in the trenches here, to know that y’all have our backs and that so many people came to support what we are doing. I needed you there because I need people to see this and be curious and get righteously angry and decide to take action on our behalf AND in their own states. And I need to know that I’m not alone in this, because it gets pretty damn depressing to see how much the legislature has taken from us in such a short time.

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