Moral Mondays are typically raucous, yet this week's gathering at Halifax Mall, three days before July 4, took on special significance.
On stage, the Rev. William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, shouted incantations about voting rights, one of this week's themes. In front of him assembled a nucleus of loyal activists yelling and clapping and whistling and singing, under the cooking sun and lingering raindrops that had turned the lawn into a mud bath.
Beyond the cacophonous party pit, another group of participants looked on. These men and women—grayer and more wrinkled —formed a horseshoe-shaped rim on the mall's perimeter. They sat in shady spots and lawn chairs, under trees and umbrellas, some resting on walkers and canes. They didn't quite have the energy they had in 1965, during the passage of the Voting Rights Act, a key section of which was invalidated last week by the U.S. Supreme Court. They never imagined they'd be advocating for it again, nearly 50 years later.
One of those on the perimeter was Mary Cobbs, a former schoolteacher from Henderson, N.C., who rested on a granite bench and held a modest sign that said "Protect Voting Rights." She wore her hair fastened back with a shiny red bow, fresh red lipstick and bright white sneakers, which she took care to protect from the mud. Asked how old she was, she cupped a hand in front of her mouth and whispered, "I'm 74, but you're not supposed to ask me that." This was her first trip to Moral Monday.
Cobbs recalled her younger days, in the years leading up to the Voting Rights Act, when election workers made her read the preamble to the U.S. Constitution before allowing her to cast a ballot. One of the first high school graduates from her rural church community, Cobbs passed her literacy tests, but many fellow parishioners at Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church did not. And they did not vote.
"Even our minister could only read a little, he wasn't no college grad," recalled Cobbs with a laugh. She added: "My vote was always very important to me. Blood was shed, lives were lost to keep us from voting."
In front of the party pit, the Rev. Barber was decrying political leaders for calling the Voting Rights Act "a headache."
"To suggest a law that Medgar Evers died for is a headache?" he intoned in front of the roaring crowd, whose members pointed at the Legislative Building in unison.
On the perimeter, folks were calmer. Folks like Fred Neal, 70, a U.S. Army veteran from Reidsville whose parents were turned away from the ballots because they didn't know the names of certain legislators.
To suggest an act written into law to protect the 15th Amendment is a headache?
On the perimeter, folks were quieter. Folks like Franklin Harper, a man with a gray goatee who traveled 100 miles from Rockingham, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., warded off dogs and hoses, and said that the Voting Rights Act helped him because "we were humans and needed the vote, too."
Martin Luther King was shot in the head because he supported voting rights. The Voting Rights Act is not a headache!
On the perimeter, folks were more reserved. Folks like 70-year-old Richie Johnson, from Charlotte, who recalled the colored fountains and bathrooms and the time her father made her hide on the car floor during a drive past burning Klan crosses.
So Mr. Governor, if you think you gon' take away our voting rights without a fight, you ain't seen a headache yet!
As the evening sun relented, the rally reached its familiar, choreographed crescendo. The party pit fanned into two flanks to usher in those prepared to make the muddy march to the Legislative Building, where they would be arrested. A drumbeat rattled, a disco rendition of "Lean on Me" blared from the speakers, and younger protesters held signs with witty references to the The Daily Show.
On the perimeter, Mary Cobbs felt a few raindrops and smoothed out her gray hair. Behind the former high school teacher, a quote was emblazoned on the Education Building wall: "By example, almost never by words."
Preparing for her return home to Henderson with fellow members of the Vance County NAACP, Cobbs popped her umbrella above her head and took stock of her first Moral Monday rally. "I hope it registers with the masses," she said. "Change doesn't come fast. But we have perseverance."
This article appeared in print with the headline "On the lawn, a grassroots protest for Independence Day."