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Local Moral Monday protest draws hundreds

SALISBURY ­— As a standing-room-only crowd filled the sanctuary of Gethsemane Baptist Church, the chanting began.

“What do we want?” the leader shouted.

“Health care!” the crowd replied.

Shouts of “Justice!” and “Education!” came next, as more and more people filled the room.

The Moral Monday protests that started in Raleigh came to Salisbury on Monday night.

Initially organized by the North Carolina NAACP, the movement has grown to encompass many who feel their lives and livelihoods are threatened by actions taken by the Republican-led General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory.

Representatives from unions, teachers’ associations and various faith communities gathered alongside concerned citizens.

A whole host of issues motivated them, including health care, immigration, unemployment benefits, voting rights and teacher pay.

The Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president, highlighted numerous changes to laws that he, and others, say are hurting North Carolina’s people, especially the poor.

As volunteers handed out copies of a “legislative report card” to spectators, Barber called on voters to oppose those who had voted

In particular, Barber called on Rowan County representatives Harry Warren and Carl Ford to oppose what he called “immoral” legislation.

“We’re not going to settle for a legislature where people swear on the Bible to do one thing and then do something diametrically opposed to that,” Barber said.

“It’s immoral to want to roll back voting rights … to take unemployment from people who can’t work through no fault of their own,” Barber went on. “It’s not liberal versus conservative. It’s just wrong, and it violates everything that we say we are for in our constitution.”

The rally began with talks from local speakers who shared stories and statistics that they said show the negative impact of changes brought about by the GOP-controlled General Assembly.

Corey Hill, of United Auto Workers Local 3520, said laws passed to scale back unemployment benefits were “unjust,” and that the cuts have affected hundreds of thousands of families where people want to work.

“They’re not lazy,” Hill said. “They’re not trying to make money off unemployment, no matter what the lawmakers say.”

And he condemned McCrory and Warren for supporting cuts to unemployment that reduced the payout and the amount of time an unemployed worker is eligible for benefits.

Two young people spoke out against changes to voting laws, focusing not just on the requirement that North Carolina voters show a picture ID, but on broader cuts.

Emma Labovitz, a senior at Salisbury High School, questioned why legislators had done away with same-day registration at a time when voter participation is low.

“They were required to bring ID and proof of residency, which ensured that no voter fraud occurred,” Labovitz said. “So, why are we taking away same-day registration?”

Christopher Pierre, a Livingstone College senior, asked why the legislature had decided to eliminate a week of early voting, and called new voting restrictions “simply treacherous.”

Marian Thompson, a counselor at West Rowan Middle School and president of the Rowan-Salisbury Association of Educators, said cuts to teacher pay and school budgets would hurt the quality of life in North Carolina.

“Our children are hurting right now, our schools are hurting right now … simply because of the budget decision that was made this past year,” Thompson said.

“I’m worried that we will not be able to fulfill our obligation to our children, and provide them with the 21st-century skills they need,” Thompson said.

Speaker after speaker called on the crowd to act.

Barber encouraged them to stay involved, leading up to a planned Feb. 8 rally at the state capitol, which he said would be “the biggest march on Raleigh the world has ever seen.”

“If you thought you’ve seen a fight so far, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” Barber said.

Just before 6 p.m., the Rev. Mark Thompson took the stage for a live broadcast of his show over SiriusXM satellite radio.

The host of “Make it Plain With Mark Thompson” recounted how he was arrested during a Moral Monday protest in Raleigh.

He said the protests were “an incredible experience,” and said he had been asked how other communities outside North Carolina could recreate the same movement.

The Salisbury rally attracted local residents and a fair number of others who’ve attended previous Moral Monday events.

“I happen to be a resident of Salisbury,” said Esther Atkins as she walked toward the entrance of the church, “and what I’d like to see come out of this is a cohesiveness, to see that all people’s needs are being met.”

“Our politicians are there to represent us and not the other way around,” Atkins said.

Tom and Jackie Garner drove from Winston Salem to be there.

Like many, they listed a host of reasons why they want to support the protests.

“Voting rights and restrictions, cutting rights and benefits, school closings and teachers’ salaries being slashed,” Tom Garner said. “It’s a long list.”

As a self-described “left-wing Christian,” Garner said it was important that people know how others feel about these issues.

Kendal Mobley, of Salisbury, said he had come out to “listen and learn, and because I’m interested in social justice issues.”

“I’ve been particularly concerned with issues of limiting access to voting,” Mobley said. “I think we want more access to public institutions, not less access.”

Lee Woods, of Statesville, also said voting restrictions were a main concern.

“I think it’s very much unnecessary,” Woods said. “We in North Carolina have done very well in encouraging people to vote over the years, and at time when we’re trying to get people involved in public process, we’re discouraging people.”

Woods also said he’s a retired educator, and called changes to schools “a strong step backwards.”

A very diverse audience – young and old, of both genders and many races – shouted their agreement with Barber throughout the rally.

Barber told the crowd that the Bible and the constitution “speak to what’s best for people.”

“Yes, the NAACP is leading, but this is not about black or white, or Latino or Asian,” Barber said. “This is about what is right.”

Contact Hugh Fisher via the editor’s desk at 704-797-4244.

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