Walking alongside thousands of HKonJ marchers from Wilmington Street to Fayetteville Street in downtown Raleigh on Saturday morning, straight into a cruel, subfreezing wind—while cursing myself for not wearing gloves or thermals—I was reminded of a scene from The Godfather: Part II, in which Michael Corleone tells fellow mobster Hyman Roth that he doubts the wisdom of investing in a Cuban casino while Fidel Castro's ragtag army is trying to bring down corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista. Earlier that day, Corleone had seen a Cuban rebel sacrifice his life to blow up a military officer.
"Now, soldiers are paid to fight," Corleone points out. "The rebels aren't."
"What does that tell you?" Roth asks.
"They could win."
They could win.
It would be silly to suggest that braving the cold was as courageous and dangerous as standing up to Batista's goons. But damn, it was cold. And some five thousand protesters were there anyway—undaunted, unwavering, braving that bitter cold for three or four hours. That tells you something about their resolve, their anger, their frustration.
"I know it's cold out here," the Reverend William Barber, the state NAACP president and Moral Mondays leader, told the crowd, before leading them in a call-and-response that listed brutalities faced by people fighting for voting rights in the fifties and sixties.
"We—WE—can stand the cold—CAN STAND THE COLD—for justice!" it concluded.
They can stand the cold, sure. But to what end?
While the Historic Thousands on Jones Street movement, founded in 2006, racked up victories in its early years, including an increase in the minimum wage and the passage of the Racial Justice Act, more recently activists have run headlong into the brick wall of a steadfastly conservative legislature. Over the past three years, even as Moral Mondays protesters rallied, the legislature passed laws that, in their view, harm the sick, starve the poor, make voting harder for minorities, and restrict women's health-care choices.
And yet, somehow, this movement is far from dead. People who attended this year's HKonJ still believe they can win.
Gene Nichol thinks so. The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill law professor and civil rights activist could have reason to feel discouraged. State Republicans have gone after him hard ever since he wrote a scathing opinion piece for The News & Observer back in 2013, in which he compared Governor McCrory to segregationist Southern governors of the past.
In retaliation, the UNC governors shut down his Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, even though it wasn't receiving state funding.
That didn't stop him.
Right before the speeches started on Saturday, a bundled-up Nichol talked to me about hope.
"There's going to be a great effort all across North Carolina to turn people out," he said. "Good people also know this is a long battle. But I think there's something in the air. You can feel it coming."
This year, Barber organized HKonJ not so much as a protest but as a voter-education drive, an effort to overcome voter ID laws designed to drive down minority turnout.
"This is our Selma," he told the crowd. "This is our time. This is our vote."
College students were deployed to hand out pledge cards for people to fill out. Barber's goal is to enlist at least five thousand volunteers working in nearly all one hundred counties to help people vote.
And on Fayetteville Street, where speeches rang out throughout the morning, the consequences of elections were made very clear.
There were pleas for help from relatives of teenage Latinos in North Carolina who've been scooped up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in recent weeks. Faris Barakat—the brother of one of the Chapel Hill shooting victims—spoke out against ramped-up hatred against Muslims, particularly from politicians. Another speaker, David Goodman, lived a similar family tragedy fifty-two years ago, when the KKK murdered his older brother, Andrew Goodman, in Mississippi, along with fellow civil rights workers James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.
"They were registering African-Americans to vote," Goodman recalled. "Andy was twenty years old ... . Forty-nine years and four days after my brother was murdered, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act. The reason we are here today is that voting rights are threatened again with restrictive laws, practices that make voting overly difficult, inconvenient, and intentionally marginalizing certain citizens."
The rally was over by twelve thirty. Frozen people began to quickly disperse. Barber and Democracy N.C. director Bob Hall called after them to make sure they didn't walk away without filling out a card.
That was the part Barber couldn't stress enough. It's cold out there. And it's a long haul to victory, and sometimes a harsh wind is in your face. But we can win.
This article appeared in print with the headline "But We Can Win"