"Forward together, not one step back," chanted a crowd estimated at 80,000 in Raleigh, N.C., this weekend.
But along with the chants was the realization that history is repeating itself with renewed legislative battles over efforts to diminish voting rights and fights for economic justice. And these setbacks have reignited civil rights activism across the South.
"What happened in Raleigh today, with between 80,000 and 100,000 people demonstrating, is bigger than anything that ever happened in the South during the '60s," said Bob Zellner, a former organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who came to Raleigh for the march.
Saturday was the largest-ever Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) Moral March, North Carolina's mobilization for social justice, which is in its eighth year. The march, led by the NAACP with more than 150 partners from around the country, was meant to reaffirm a promise to hold lawmakers accountable for human rights, including the right to vote, economic justice, educational equality, access to health care, and rights surrounding women, immigrants and the criminal-justice system.
The size of this year's march, more than double that of last year's, shows that a more diverse group of people are using this opportunity as a platform for a much broader platform of civil rights than in the past.
North Carolina has been at the heart of the national voting-rights struggle this past year. In June the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, allowing states to change election law without federal oversight. In North Carolina this resulted in the H-589 bill, which cut early voting by seven days, eliminated same-day registration, initiated voter-ID requirements and more.
In response to the bill, which HKonJ organizers call a "monster voter-suppression law," activists in Raleigh launched a civil disobedience campaign, called Moral Mondays, by entering the North Carolina Legislature to be peacefully arrested. The attention garnered by Moral Mondays helped fuel yesterday's march.
"I never thought that I would live to see the day that my daughters, 20 and 19, would be fighting the same civil rights issues that my parents fought years ago," said Pastor Earl C. Johnson, of the Martin Street Baptist Church in Raleigh. "Voting rights, education for children and things of that nature [are still issues]. So we have slipped back in time here in North Carolina."
2014 marks the 50th anniversary of many civil rights benchmark events, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Mississippi's Freedom Summer. As it was in 1964, voting rights is a polarizing issue in the fight for civil rights, but the agenda has broadened since the 1960s.
The Rev. William Barber II, North Carolina's NAACP president, repeatedly reminded the crowd on Saturday that its members now include Latinos, Native Americans, Democrats, Republicans, independents, immigrants, business leaders, workers and more.
"Basically, there are more seats added to the table. We see that the black American struggle is similar to the undocumented struggle to the LGBTQ community's struggle," said Sandra Khalifa, an organizer with Florida's Dream Defenders who traveled to North Carolina for the march.
She added, “It has the potential to be even more powerful because it's so many more voices screaming 'we need justice.' ”
As more groups are at the civil rights table, the list of issues being discussed has broadened as well. Freedom of equal education, labor rights, prison reform and health care are on the agenda, but voting rights has become a unifier of many, who then organize to understand their connection on a larger, societywide level.
"The struggle has ebbs and flows based on the context of the attack," said Barber. "It is the attacks that make us reach for a better place in our song because we see our rights being rolled back, and so we fight to push our own rights forward and defend them together."
Amity Paye has written for various publications, including the Amsterdam News and Time Out New York.