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80,000 March in North Carolina Proudly Pushing Back Against Radical Right Agenda

Largest protest in the South since Selma in '65.

It was a proud day for this Raleigh native. On Saturday, a crowd of riled-up citizens the North Carolina NAACP estimated to be upwards of 80,000—the largest such gathering in the South since the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march—headed to the state capitol to protest the extremist policies of North Carolina's GOP-controlled legislature.

Black and white, young and old, gay and straight, the people gave voice to a full roster of outrages, from racist attacks on voting rights to the state government's refusal to expand Medicaid to half a million vulnerable Tar Heels to limitations on women's reproductive freedom. From a four-year-old girl carrying a sign that read "Nope to Pope!" (referring to Art Pope, the state's multimillionaire budget director and Koch ally) to the indomitable Rosa Nell Eaton, a 92-year-old veteran of the Civil Rights movement, they were united with one message: "Forward together, not one step back."

The Moral March on Raleigh, organized by the North Carolina NAACP, was the eighth annual march of what is known as the Historic Thousands on Jones Street (HKonJ) People's Coalition, and a continuation of the Moral Monday demonstrations that took place in 2013, in which nearly 1,000 people (including my 81-year-old mother, a retired educator) were arrested.

There will be much chatter in the progressive media about this event (though there appears to be disappointingly little in the national press), some of it from people who have limited experience with the South in general, or North Carolina in particular. Since the region's peculiar contradictions — and triumphs — were on full display Saturday, let me share a bit of perspective from one who grew up in these parts.

Dixie's Last Stand

I started my Saturday morning at Big Ed's restaurant, a downtown favorite for Southern cooking, where you can enjoy delicacies like pork brains with eggs and fatback biscuits in a big open dining room decorated with agricultural paraphenalia. The crowd is mixed race, more white than black. Tucked over in one corner is a Civil War shrine, complete with battle scenes and what appears to be North Carolina's Confederate battle flag. Two tables of black customers enjoy their breakfast surrounded by this display.

Someone from another part of the country might be aghast at this scene. But if you're going to begin to understand it, and how it relates to the Moral Monday movement, you've got to know certain things.

You've got to know that North Carolina is a state in which a great part of the population never really accepted the planter class. Despite the cliched nod to someting called "Dixie" in the corner of Big Ed's, Tar Heels were never very enthusiastic about the Civil War while it raged. When it ended, the state gave the South its most powerful display of fusion politics in the mid-1890s, when a ticket of populists and Republicans, with key support from black leaders, won the legislature and elected not only the governor, but both U.S. senators.

That extraordinary triumph is what drove conservative Democrats to build a coalition of planters and industrialists to crush the insurgency with a mix of horrific violence and racism in the election of 1898. The state's elites managed to push down the fusion coalition and disenfranchised nearly all blacks and most poor whites. The battle lines were drawn, and these dynamics continued to play out throughout the 20th century.

That history reverberates through North Carolina right now; the memory of blacks and whites who came together to challenge elites, and the shocking brutality of the response. When North Carolina swung for Barack Obama in 2008, the Old Guard was reawakened, and it has been trying to surpress voting rights, attack minorites and women and resegregate the schools ever since. Anything to protect its turf.