Hundreds of people gathered Wednesday on the Peace & Justice Plaza, almost spilling over onto Franklin Street, with signs and chants that showed a growing discontent with state politics.
The N.C. NAACP-sponsored rally, which occurred simultaneously with a dozen other rallies statewide, was a continuation of a summer of activism and protest at the N.C. General Assembly.
Speakers — who included former Sen. Ellie Kinnaird and Laurel Ashton, field secretary of the N.C. NAACP and a 2012 UNC graduate — condemned legislation passed by the Republican-led state legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory.
The crowd chanted “shame, shame” when speakers mentioned changes to voting laws, abortion rights and education policy. They also shouted “forward together, not one step back” in the spirit of the summer’s Moral Monday protests, where nearly a thousand citizens were arrested for civil disobedience.
The rally honored the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.‘s March on Washington.
“I have Carolina on my mind,” the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins of Covenant Presbyterian Church said in his keynote speech. “I just can’t get Carolina off my mind because the legislators in the North Carolina General Assembly have destroyed everything we worked for in the last 50 years.”
Vicki Ryder, a member of the Raging Grannies, a group of older women dedicated to promoting social justice nationwide, led the Grannies in song during the rally.
Ryder was one of several in the group present at the 1963 March on Washington and at its anniversary last weekend — a trip she said was disappointing.
“I kept comparing it Saturday to 50 years ago,” she said. “I wasn’t feeling the same (passionate) sense. But of course, we do feel it here in North Carolina.”
Bishop Gene Hatley, who emceed the rally, called the turnout sensational, and said it proved that this was a movement, not just a rally.
“The energy is the same energy we were experiencing at Moral Mondays,” he said. “I think it’s showing the state that there is solidarity starting to grow.
Lt. Josh Mecimore, watch commander for the Chapel Hill Police Department, said there were no incidents or arrests. He said police closed one of the travel lanes to make room for the crowd.
“It was a very peaceful and amicable group,” he said.
Hawkins said he expects the Moral Monday protests to continue throughout the fall.
Christy Lambden, UNC’s student body president, said he has been unable to attend the Moral Monday protests and was pleased to get a dose of the state’s activist atmosphere.
He said key issues his administration will focus on — namely preserving on-campus voting and rallying against tuition hikes — will require the same level of energy.
“We’ve got to take this momentum back onto UNC’s campus and really harness it,” he said.
Dory Deweese, a member of the UNC Young Democrats, said she was initially optimistic about McCrory’s term, but when the governor signed a bill tightening regulations on abortion clinics, her hope melted into disappointment.
“In the Nov. 2014 elections, I want for there to be a Democratic majority,” she said.
Speakers and attendees discussed voter mobilization efforts to ensure citizens have the now-required government-issued photo ID and know how to find their voting precinct.
Volunteer Jamie Sohn, who helped organize the rallies, said they were put together in just three weeks.
She said from what she heard, most of the other rallies also had a great turnout.
“I’ve been to Moral Mondays, and you see a lot of the same faces,” she said. “But tonight, I’ve seen a lot of new faces. I’m so proud of Chapel Hill.”
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