Shun not the struggle, face it, ’tis God’s gift.
– Maltbie Davenport Babcock
The purpose of moral leadership is to build a community of struggle. The strength of the masses is in our intersectionality; the places where our concerns and convictions meet in solidarity. The Moral Mondays movement is an astounding example of what a prophetic community looks like in action. Tens of thousands marched in resistance to a structure of oppression that is seeking to roll back advances made in LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, voting rights, and access to healthcare. After attending the Moral March in Raleigh, NC, a group of local leaders and visitors from the Kairos Center and Union Theological Seminary gathered for a symposium organized by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and the School for Conversion on moral leadership and movement building. We had the chance to dive into some of the most pressing questions of our day: How do we speak with prophetic voices that encapsulate the entirety of the struggle for human rights? How do we mobilize the mass of people who are denied basic agency in modern society? Leaders from the Forward Together/Moral Mondays movement discussed those questions and others with us on the basis of their experiences building the movement in North Carolina.
Yara Allen is the artistic voice of the Moral Mondays movement. She was that first to speak from the Forward Together/Moral Mondays movement, and stressed the need for “collective effervescence” in movement practice – creating prophetic spaces where the collective voice of the disenfranchised can be expressed. The personality of an action is largely determined by the music or chants used to connect voices and hearts to the struggle. Power is created when the message of the movement and the messages within commonly held cultural expressions are linked. Rev. Dr. William Barber, a key leader and the most public face of the movement, referred to the need to “exegete our music” and to approach rhythm and word with the same intellectual vigor that we approach sacred texts.
[aesop_image img=”https://kairoscenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/16396324128_8097042c9f_z.jpg” alt=”Yara Allen” align=”center” lightbox=”off” caption=”Yara Allen speaks on the centrality of culture in the Forward Together/Moral Mondays movement, and in all successful movements for justice.” captionposition=”left”]
When he spoke, Barber laid out the structure of what it takes to build a moral movement, stressing the deep roots of their particular struggles within the political and social atmosphere of North Carolina. He described the Five Pillars of building moral leadership: 1. Anti-poverty through economic sustainability. This forces us to view governmental budgets as a document which reflects the moral character of the people; 2. Educational equity; 3. Healthcare for all and environmental issues; 4. Fairness in the criminal justice system; and 5. Expansion of equal rights and protections under the law. Barber also insisted that “Moral movements deal with what is required, not what is possible or acceptable.” This is linked with Walter Brueggemann’s idea of “subversive hope” or the imaginative capability of seeing beyond the constraints dictated by supremacists systems.
The movement in North Carolina, spearheaded by Barber and the NAACP, is working to reclaim moral language from the uses of empire. Hope is the foundation of building large coalitions to fight against what seems to be incredible odds. This leads to Barber’s conclusion that the prophet cannot end in anger – that the concluding message of every march, rally, and direct action must center on the hope that the power of a united community of the oppressed can overcome the physical and material brutality of regressive politics. The personal stories we heard that day from activists working in the North Carolina NAACP and the Moral Mondays movement reinforced for us the ability that sacralized hope has to create investment in movement politics from diverse communities.
This is connected to the overall message of the march that we experienced before the symposium. Barber ended the march by proposing that the fusion politics of the Moral Mondays movement is the treatment for the “heart condition” affecting the United States. Progressive movements have ceded the moral ground to the forces of discrimination and control. During the question and answer period of the symposium, Barber was careful to emphasize the long-term nature of the struggle. Success is not necessarily reflected only in the number of marchers or the number of electoral victories – success is measured by the commitment of the mass of people to uplifting the moral voice of the oppressed. This is reminiscent of the Bible passage which was repeatedly invoked by Barber in North Carolina and by Benjamin Mays during the early stirrings of the Civil Rights Movement: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins” (Isaiah 58:1). This is a call for resistance using the only moral weapon available to the disenfranchised – the call for repentance and material redress.