Like most of the 309 people who've been arrested at the Moral Monday protests at the state Legislature, I've gently mentioned the experience to friends and colleagues, all of them white like me, in the hopes that they'll join the campaign. Several have responded with enthusiasm and, I believe, will be behind bars one day soon.
But typical of less-supportive remarks is this comment from a fellow professor at N.C. State about organizer the Rev. William Barber, head of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP: "Barber is only attracting the same crowd of old white liberals who have supported him before. These demonstrations aren't going to change anything."
A statement like that deserves unpacking because it includes three loaded terms: "white," "old" and "liberal." But it's the "white" that stings me most, because it is doubly demeaning.
While it is thus far true that about two-thirds of those arrested have been whites, the presumption of the term is that Moral Monday is somehow a racial campaign. It's also true that Barber's movement is clothed in traditions established by the civil rights movement of yesteryear: prayer, rhythmic Freedom Songs and the high-flown rhetoric of Christian nonviolence.
"White" also implies that Barber should attract a following whose majority is black, as was the rising led by Dr. Martin Luther King. "White" also suggests that these whites are somehow "race traitors" as well. Having lived with that accusation for all of my adult life, I have a thing or two to say about its merit.
If only for a brief time in 1965–66, I was a civil rights worker in Marengo County, Ala., about 50 miles west of Selma. I was a 19- and 20-year-old grunt in the nonviolent army of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, headed by Dr. King. For about 50 days, along with others across Dixie, both black and white, I went block to block, door to door, persuading African-Americans to apply for a literacy test that had for nearly a century barred them from the polls. Our Movement—we capitalized its name—had to organize these futile outings to prove to Congress that black people who wanted to vote were routinely turned away. After the Movement had made its point and the Voting Rights Act passed, for another 150 days we mostly organized people to register and, ultimately, to vote—but we waged other campaigns as well.
Though I have lived in North Carolina for more than 10 years, in the '60s I was unquestionably a Texan. During that period, as today, many acquaintances—and not a few Alabama policemen—were, to put it mildly, wary of me because of my involvement in a "Negro" rebellion in whose ranks I was jailed seven times. At first, I did not know how to respond to the "n---lover" charge because I did not fully comprehend what the Movement was about. But short spans in jail—less than 40 days, all told—gave me an education I will not forget so long as my memory—I am 67—is still in service.
Because jails were segregated, I was always placed in the company of whites, most of them people who were demeaned by both races as "rednecks" or "poor white trash." They were not foremen or even workers in the paper mills, which paid the highest wages in the region, but instead were mechanics, iron workers, carpenters, TV repairmen and other manual-skills types. Most were in jail, as were most black prisoners, because Marengo was not only a "dry" county but one in which—foreshadowing today's drug laws—the mere possession of alcohol was a criminal offense.
One of the ironies of my experience was that the mayor of the town in whose ghetto I lived had banded together with a handful of other "respectable" whites to petition for a ballot initiative that would legalize the sale of alcohol. They wanted to open liquor stores and to start a country club as well.
Through intermediaries, the mayor, who was of course white, had conveyed blank petitions to the Movement, and I was carrying several of them in the chest pocket of my "Freedom Suit"—a get-up including bib overalls—at the time of one of my arrests. On that occasion I was thrown into a big cell and shortly joined by two raging drunks who claimed to be Klansmen. Had it not been for the protection of white sentence-servers I knew from previous stays, I believe the pair would have carried out the threats they made upon me.
But after a night of verbal abuse from the Klan-talkers, I managed to get them and the others to listen as I explained the petition campaign. As the days passed and they were released, several of them, including the two presumed Klansmen, asked for petitions to carry home. They had had time to get sober and think and had concluded that, at least sometimes, one's political interests are not always and only tied to the color of one's skin. In that I believe they showed more intelligence, if not more erudition, than my fence-sitting professor friends.
Over the past few months, the General Assembly's white majority has entertained a seemingly never-ending series of bills aimed at starving the poor, impoverishing the middle class and fattening the portfolios of the supposedly tax-burdened rich. They have proposed increasing class sizes in elementary schools; reducing voting hours; cutting both the amount and duration of unemployment insurance; refusing federal funds to expand Medicaid; and—what riles me most—levying a sales tax on medicines and groceries, something unheard-of even in the Alabama of Gov. George Wallace. Some of these proposals are already law.
None of this legislative agenda is aimed at African-Americans alone. Like Marengo's law against booze, its target is almost everyone. Contesting it, and loudly, is in the interest of all of those who—unlike its intellectual author, heir and multimillionaire Art Pope—cash or deposit paychecks signed by someone else. Moral Monday is essentially a class and not a racial struggle.
Seventy-two percent of North Carolina is white. If even half of Barber's militants are also white, that's not enough. But it's a sign of hope that some white people are at long last coming into their right minds.
Dick Reavis is a former senior editor at Texas Monthly and a former reporter at several daily newspapers. An English professor at N.C. State, he has written six books, including If White Kids Die: Memories of a Civil Rights Movement Volunteer.
This article appeared in print with the headline "White like me."
Correction: The current number of people arrested at the Moral Monday protests is 309 (not 157).