Thousands of marchers from social justice groups across North Carolina attended the NAACP-sponsored "Historic Thousands on Jones Street" march in downtown Raleigh on Saturday.
The crowd of protestors, which stretched from West Morgan Street to East Hargett Street, included social justice advocates from Chapel Hill and all across the state.
The organization celebrated its 13th year of demonstration with speakers, a procession from Memorial Hall to the State Capitol Building and a rallying cry of “When we vote, we win.” Marchers held signs voicing concerns in a variety of social justice issues ranging from racial equity to "Medicare for all."
The speakers included Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, and other social justice leaders and activists from North Carolina and beyond.
One of the speakers, Dontae Sharpe, was released from prison in August after a high-profile crime series, Final Appeal, led to his exoneration. This was his first speaking engagement after being released from prison after 25 years. Sharpe said students can play a crucial role in criminal justice reform.
“If any students want to get into criminal justice and become lawyers, judges or DA — if they do become that — it's important that they stay true to who they are and don’t get corrupted by the system,” Sharpe said.
The event also drew state political leaders, including U.S. Rep. David Price (D-Durham, Orange, Wake) and U.S. Senate candidates Cal Cunningham and Erica Smith. Price said he was proud of the march’s age diversity.
“There are issues that especially affect young people, and I think the rest of the country depends on young people to pick up the banner of the kind of country we want to be,” he said.
Sammy Slade, a member of the Carrboro Town Council, attended the march. He said one issue he is concerned about is environmental injustice.
“There’s a history of environmental justice issues in this state that need to be addressed,” Slade said. “A lot of it is a consequence of the capitalistic system, which is a system of exploitation of people, specifically African Americans in the United States, from the beginning of slavery.”
Niki Davis, a social justice activist and member of the Métis Nation, came from her home in D.C. to the march. She said voting and activism were both crucial in fighting against oppressive and powerful interests.
“We’ve got to keep marching. We have to stay present even when the rest of the press doesn’t show it,” Davis said. “It shows you how many human beings are ready, we are ready for equity.”
Gene Nichol, a law professor at UNC who also spoke at a rally before the march, said an informed student vote would encourage crucial change in the coming election season.
“Students frequently don’t know as much about what’s happening in their own communities as we wish they would, but they almost unfailingly have a great set of values and inclination for engagement,” Nichol said.
Many residents of North Carolina who attended the march also said voting is the most important and impactful way to make a change.
Ruth Zalph, a Chapel Hill resident and member of the Raging Grannies, said she was protesting for those who weren’t able to vote.
“They can’t get out and vote unless they have an address,” Zalph said. “That’s a crime, they’re human beings like you and I.”
Carrboro Mayor Lydia Lavelle also marched at the event. Lavelle said the march’s social justice message resonated with the mission of her own town.
“Anything we can do at the local level in terms of public policy, in terms of the level of amplification we’re able to give to these important issues, it’s incumbent on folks who are elected at the local level,” Lavelle said.
Lee Mueller, a UNC medical student who was marching in favor of implementing "Medicare for all," said she thinks it is important for her to vote in support of people who have been historically mistreated by the health care system.
“I'm voting because it is the most meaningful way for me to make a change, and to stand up for what I believe in and to stand up for my fellow human beings,” she said.
And with the 2020 elections including races from president to General Assembly to local offices, Nichol said informing voters about the issues facing the state is a priority.
“Learning what’s happening in North Carolina is crucial for young folks, and once they learn, they’ll know what to do,” he said.
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