When Michelle Cotton Laws rose to speak at the dedication of Chapel Hill's Peace and Justice Plaza this past August (download MP3), she found herself looking straight into the eyes of Silent Sam—a statue of a gun-toting Confederate soldier that famously adorns the UNC campus.
For the crowd gathered in front of the Franklin Street post office that afternoon to dedicate the plaza, it was a day to look back, a time to celebrate those in Chapel Hill who had fought for civil rights and equality and won during divided times. There stood the families, those who had marched, sat-in and rallied, all reminiscing about how far they'd come.
But when her turn came to speak, Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP Chapter President Laws looked forward, not back—face-to-face with the gray stone image of the slave power that surveys Chapel Hill's most prominent thoroughfare.
Laws' voice rose to a crescendo as she told her listeners that Silent Sam's image "reminds us of the racist history that continues to be perpetuated and reproduced in all forms of social inequality."
It's clear Michelle Cotton Laws' fight is not complete and never will be. While others may see a near-utopian, liberal and accepting Chapel Hill, she sees a town where minorities work low-wage jobs, can't afford to live in their historic, increasingly gentrified neighborhoods and are being left behind in the classroom. She'll remind you of that any chance she gets and ask you to join her modern movement.
"It's not over, it's long from over," Laws, 41, said after her speech. "I think the reason why we haven't really put a dent in some of these issues is because people stop, and we get caught up in the pomp and circumstance. We get caught up in the ceremonies. We get caught up in the nostalgia of the history and the historical movement. I just couldn't go through another ceremony and be a part of another program and not challenge people to get involved in the movement that was so much a part of those people's lives, and they sacrificed for it."
Now she's the one carrying the banner of equality as the first female leader in the history of the local NAACP chapter. To understand why, you have to understand her past.
Michelle Cotton Laws grew up in public housing in Chapel Hill. Her grandmother served on the resident council, and Laws often tagged along to meetings. When she overheard a conversation about how the neighborhood youth could be better served, she chimed in, beginning her career in public advocacy at age 10.
"I became like the voice, the spokesperson for kids in public housing," she said. "I would go and talk about why we needed better playground equipment."
Her activism continued in college under the mentorship of two powerful African-American women—administrator Margo Crawford and Professor Sonja Haynes Stone. She became an advocate for a freestanding black cultural center at UNC, and one now exists that bears Stone's name. She organized students to wear green ribbons at a court trial in support of Keith Edwards, UNC's first black female police officer, who claimed white officers with less experience were promoted ahead of her. After a long battle, Edwards won a settlement from the university.
Al McSurely, the lawyer who represented Edwards, said he could tell early on that Laws would be a leader.
"She just takes the best from everybody she can and spits out the stuff that's bullshit," said McSurely, who works with Laws as the chairman of the legal redress committee for the state NAACP.
"She has a really good ability to do that, and I think it's going to make her one of the strongest leaders in the Triangle area, black or white."
If you don't believe him, just hear her speak at the churches where she's called to minister on Sundays. Or look at her results. In 2005, she was at the head of the charge to change the name of Airport Road to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. This past summer she championed the cause of Charles Brown, the black barber who says he was racially profiled by police while walking home. Without Laws' support, the story never would have made headlines. Brown's case has since resurrected the call for better police oversight and community engagement.
Now Laws is urging the town council to appoint a black member to fill a council vacancy after the sole minority representative failed to keep his post in the recent election. But don't get it wrong; she's not only fighting for African-Americans.
"I would be just as opposed if it was an all-black council," she said. "In this day and time, where we are in our history, I'm not in favor of an all-anything."
That stands out to McSurely, who says Laws is an advocate for gay rights—which in the past has been controversial for NAACP leaders.
Angella Dunston, who now serves as director of faith and citizen outreach for Gov. Bev Perdue, has known Laws since 2005, when the pair worked on closing the achievement gap. Like McSurely, she is enthusiastic about Laws' activism. "I wonder if she is ever not advocating," said Dunston, a former chairwoman of the state NAACP's education committee. "I think even in her sleep she's probably doing that."
Laws' story in isolation is inspirational: a poor black youth who grew up in public housing breaks through class barriers to graduate from UNC in 1992, earns a master's degree in sociology at N.C. Central, where she now teaches, and pursues a Ph.D. at N.C. State.
It would be easy for her to rest on those laurels and devote her time solely to her husband and the two young girls they co-parent as temporary guardians. But that's not Michelle Cotton Laws. While others may see a benign post-racial society in Chapel Hill, she continues to fight for racial equality in her home town.
She sees herself in those she wants to help, believing that if she can connect resources to those in need—the homeless, the unemployed, the underpaid—she can give a chance to those who have been "subjugated to second-class citizenship."
Though she's been pulled away by job offers and other commitments, she keeps coming back to that same movement, the one that was honored in August at the post office, the one she won't let die.
"It's in our nature," she says, "to fight when we're feeling like we're being harmed, when we are feeling like we are in danger. Some people only take that to mean physical, but when you threaten my liberties, when you threaten my rights, when you threaten me as a human and my right to exist, my right to be different, then, yeah, that's worth fighting for."
Corrections (Nov. 25, 2009): In the print edition, Michelle Cotton Laws was described as an activist and a lawyer; she is not a lawyer. Also, Sonja Haynes Stone's first name was misspelled.