Al McSurely: Dr. King, ‘Iowa Oxygen’ and the Moral Monday movement

August 16, 2013 

Al McSurely


As I prepared to go to Charlotte to celebrate the life of Julius Chambers – a life of courage, intellect and of a loving, joyful fight for justice – I kept thinking about the “Iowa Oxygen” that progressive black and white people experienced on Jan. 4, 2008.

You remember. A young black senator from Illinois declared victory for CHANGE in his first presidential primary in a virtually all-white state. Over 227,000 people voted in his party’s caucuses, compared to 124,000 voters in the Democratic caucuses just four years earlier; and 120,000 in the irreparably split minority party.

To help you remember the scene, Mike Huckabee came in second in the minority party’s caucuses, with his uncontested and hypocritical appeals to the white Bible Belt voters, running hard against Millionaire Mitt and Maverick McCain, the candidates of the mainstream corporate-bankers. A bunch of white men, bathed in pathos and animus.

But we black and white progressives were not interested in the minority party’s congenital divisions then. We were focused on the new majority party, being built before our eyes by Obama’s vision and organization. Over 57 percent of its under-30 voters voted for him. In the first of a 15-round primary, he knocked out three experienced candidates: Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson. The two left standing – Hillary Clinton and John Edwards – were nine and 10 points behind, sucking wind.

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of black and white progressives, hungry for a win and afraid most white Americans were not ready to put a black man in the White House with all the power that goes with it, had some of our faith restored. “The brother has a chance!” we said, as our flickering faith was strengthened with the oxygen from Iowa.

Most of us had kept alive the pilot light of faith in the “Beloved Community” from the Movement. The friendships and faith we developed working with sisters and brothers in SNCC, CORE, NAACP, SCEF, and SCLC – perhaps best expressed by Dr. King’s “Dreams” 50 years ago – had kept us going. But the little light was flickering and strained. Suddenly it was given some oxygen. Maybe we can, we said. Maybe we can repair the breach caused by racism in God’s human family and the mess it has made in our nation. Yes we can, some of us said, only half-believing it at first, stung by the lash and backlash of racism so many times.

Last Monday in Western North Carolina, 10,000 people experienced some Asheville Oxygen. (Check out Led by the Rev. Barber and the N.C. NAACP, the crowd – 90 percent white but with every African-, Native- and Latin-American who could get there – got a strong dose of Dr. Barber’s balm of faith and hope. Thousands of progressive women, gay people, white men, young people, union people, and scores of ministers, rabbis, imams and laypeople of faith, little faith and no faith, held hands with imperfect strangers and sand WE SHALL OVERCOME.

Consider the necessity and significance of each of these three words. We! Shall! Overcome!

We chanted “Forward TOGETHER” and Not One Step Back. Each time, more and more people joined in. By the end, everyone knew the chant, and understood why it is our marching order. The Rev. Barber and the Doctor Barber had set up an outdoor church and clinic for wounded souls in Pack Park in downtown Asheville.

On Wednesday, Aug. 28, the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP, along with other branches in the 13 congressional districts across the state, will sponsor rallies honoring Dr. King’s instructions 50 years ago that afternoon to go back to the South and organize.

Dr. King asked us to work to repair the breach in “the hills and mole hills of Mississippi.” He also said, many time, that we need to work in the coastal plains, the sand hills, the piedmont, and the mountains of North Carolina.

Dozens of N.C. NAACP allies in Chapel Hill and Carrboro are meeting to develop plans for the day. Dr. Barber and the local branch particularly want to invite the 150-plus people from our community who drove to Raleigh on a Moral Monday, tried to talk some sense into the old white guys who are driving North Carolina over a fiscal, moral, and constitutional cliff, only to have Mr. Tillis and Mr. Burger order the Capitol Police to handcuff them and throw them in fail for trespassing in Our House on Jones Street. Let us celebrate Dr. King’s life. Let us celebrate the good life of Julius Chambers. Let us set out to strengthen the WE, the SHALL, and the OVERCOME, in our own lives. our own fractured community, with its long and ugly history of betrayal of black people’s dreams.

As Dr. Barber said, “That will be the Day. That will be the Day.”

Al McSurely worked with CORE and SCEF in the 1960s and was a leading organizer of the “Poor White” contingent from Appalachia in the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington, D.C., in 1968, a month after Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis. For the last quarter of a century, he has practiced civil rights law in Chapel Hill. His late wife, Ashley Osment, was a colleague of Julius Chambers at the UNC Center for Civil Rights until her death in 2010.

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