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‘Moral’ Civic Reform Movement Spreads Across Deep South

By andrew.kreig@gmail.com (Andrew Kreig)

Mayor Johnny Ford and the Rev. William Barber in Selma, AL March 8, 2014

One of the nation’s most innovative and so-far successful social justice reform movements in recent years is spreading in the Deep South — including in a major test scheduled for March 25 in Alabama.

A new Alabama “Moral Mondays” group that mixes advocacy and civil disobedience plans its public launch at noon on the state capitol’s front steps in Montgomery. Moral Mondays takes its name from weekly demonstrations that have occurred on Mondays during recent legislative sessions in North Carolina.

The movement draws its strength from the pain and anger widespread in the Deep South, including on legal and social justice issues.

It draws heavily from the civil rights movement of the 1960s and also uses “moral” and “constitutional” language similar to that of recent conservative groups. It emphasizes non-partisan “fusion” politics while opposing what its leaders call extremist policies by conservatives.

The new movement is characterized by mass arrests during peaceful protests at state legislatures. It expanded last week to Georgia and South Carolina. It moves next to Alabama, one of the reddest of Red states and locale of many of the nation’s iconic civil rights struggles from five decades ago.

Today’s column is a first-hand report on how Alabama’s Saving OurSelves (S.O.S.) coalition affiliated itself March 8 with the Moral Mondays movement. My photo at right shows the organizational meeting in Selma, with the Alabama River and the city’s Edmond Pettus Bridge in the background.

The main leader is the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter. In my March 8 photo above showing Alabama planning, Barber was just to the right of Tuskegee Mayor Johnny Ford, who was dressed in a red Tuskegee University sweatshirt as he spoke in favor of the new coalition. Barber is shown also in a file photo below.

The Moral Mondays message attacks as extremist conservative policies such as opposition to Obamacare extension of Medicaid health insurance to the uninsured — a decision largely in the hands of states.

Yet the movement’s messages go far beyond specific policies and thus are “transformative, not transactional,” Barber likes to say.

The Rev. William BarberSuch messages mean, on close examination, that the movement threatens traditional politicians and special interest groups of many kinds, including those on the left that are organized on single-issue rhetoric, party politics, and wheeler-dealing with hidden agendas. Implicit in the Moral Mondays movement is that it opposes those on the left who are accustomed to celebrity-driven, top-down leadership — and fund-raising that crosses a line in terms of self-dealing or “pay to play” arrangements.

This Moral Mondays movement impresses me as bold, creative and seemingly likely to achieve significant goals. As our work at the Justice Integrity Project has found, many people are hurting, angry — and looking for new and better ways to achieve dramatic civic reform.

I was one of the few reporters to attend the meeting, which was part of my five days at the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee from March 6 to 10 in Selma commemorating “Bloody Sunday.”

That name comes from police brutality on March 7, 1965, when approximately 160 Alabama state and local police viciously beat and gassed 600 peaceful protesters on the Pettus Bridge. The marchers had intended to walk from Selma to Montgomery to protest near-complete lack of voting rights for blacks in majority black Dallas County and the police killing of a local resident, Jimmie Lee Jackson. The overall brutality, including the fatal clubbing of Wyoming-born Rev. James Reeb by racists in Selma, led to the national public outrage, two follow-up marches, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The new Moral Mondays coalition for Alabama was created in Selma during the annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee, which retraces the steps of the first marchers. This year, a core group of 50 also traveled in a modern Freedom Ride from Selma through five Southern capitals to Washington, DC for rallies, including protests at the U.S. Supreme Court and Capitol.

The week of protests, church services and educational events I attended were powerful. There were many eloquent speeches, historical recreations and special events (including a mock trial and a play) repeatedly framed by prayer and music. Yet such scenes are best appreciated in person or by video. Therefore, my goal below is to focus in words on a summary of the movement, its allies, challenges and prospects.

    

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