Welcome to The Battle For North Carolina, a series where we take you inside one of the most contentious states in 2016.
Reverend William Barber was getting ready to preach. It wasn’t out of the ordinary; the North Carolina NAACP president’s voice is so infused with mellifluous righteousness that he could order a ham sandwich and make it sound like he knew it would be delivered by the Lord. The conference room at the Raleigh Convention Center, where he was about to speak on this late October Saturday morning, had no choice but to morph into a church.
“Voting,” he said, “is serious. It is spiritual.” And, he added, no one can take it away from you. “Any time you try to abridge my right to vote,” Barber yelled, the audience swept up in his moral ferocity, “you are playing God.”
It was the last day of the state’s NAACP convention. Three years ago, Barber began protesting weekly at the State Capitol, along with dozens of others outraged by the laws being passed by legislature inside, especially the voter restrictions that were making it harder for people of color to vote in the state. If North Carolina goes blue this year — reversing the past six years of Republican political dominance — the faith-limned fury of Reverend Barber will be able to take some of the credit. After his rousing speech at the Democratic convention this summer, in which he said religion was being used to “camouflage meanness” in politics, Barber has also become a voice nationwide for a liberal evangelical tradition that seeks to stand out against the much louder voice of the conservative right — or what he calls the “evangelical wrong.” But to do that, he first needs to get voters to the polls.
He had lots of fodder at his disposal to fire up his political congregation, material that had been honed after a week of early voting–themed marches across the state. Keith Lamont Scott was killed by a police officer in Charlotte only a month ago. The transgender bathroom law is still in effect, and the state never accepted money for the Medicaid expansion. Although the 4th Circuit Court struck down those voting restrictions Barber had been protesting, Republican-led county election boards found new ways to limit early voting — which primarily draws Democratic voters. Just days before Barber’s speech, the NAACP received reports of voters being purged from the rolls at the last minute. Among those affected was Grace Bell Hardison, a 100-year-old black woman who has been voting for decades. Nine counties in North Carolina that had offered Sunday voting — which often motivates black churches to hold “Souls to the Polls” events, inspiring people to vote during the service before sending them en masse to cast ballots — decided to discontinue the practice. On top of all that, this year marks the first presidential election since the Supreme Court broke Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
These layers of recent history weighed on the NAACP convention like sedimentary rock. “These are serious times,” Barber said, earning a “Hallelujah” from the audience. His voice grew louder as he began describing the defeated voter restrictions, which a federal court said targeted black voters with “surgical precision” in July. “I’ve been thinking about that word, ‘surgical,’” he said. “In a knife fight, everyone knows it happened because there’s blood everywhere. They tried to take your voting rights and not leave a scar.” His mother, Barber explained, had relied on two words when she was determined to make young Billy do something: “You better.” So he repeated, over and over again, “we better vote.”
About a mile away, 20-year-old Alston Devega, a sophomore at St. Augustine’s University, a historically black school in Raleigh, was trying to get residents to do exactly that, canvassing a neighborhood not too far from campus. “Have a blessed day,” he said to all he passed. The streets were mostly quiet, perhaps because NC State was celebrating homecoming. Other houses were just permanently empty; as Devega and Emma Aderlan, a 26-year-old volunteer whose mom runs Common Cause NC’s canvassing program, approached abandoned houses in the heat, the neighbors sitting out on their porch across the street would yell, “No one lives there!”
Even so, it was clear November 8 was in the air. “How can a person like that get so close to the White House?” one neighbor shouted as the canvassers passed. Two men sitting on their stoop then simultaneously yelled, “Hillary all the way” and “Trump! Trump! Trump!” The one shouting the GOP candidate’s name couldn’t help laughing when he was done.
Nearly everyone Devega and Aderlan spoke to had either already voted or already knew that a polling place would open up down the block on Election Day. Across the state, however, the numbers have shown that Barber’s call was warranted. Early turnout among black voters in North Carolina is down compared to 2012, perhaps because there were fewer places to vote during the first week of early voting. In Guilford County, about an hour’s drive away from where the NAACP convention took place, there was only one polling location for that first week; now, 24 other locations have opened up, and turnout could increase as lines grow less concentrated and residents can vote closer to home.
The day after Barber’s speech was also the only Sunday on which early voting locations would be open in Guilford County. That’s why Reverend Cardes Brown stood in front of his congregation at the New Light Missionary Baptist Church in Greensboro, showing his congregation how to find the gospel in a year when faith keeps getting buried by fear and foul manners.
Those listening in the pews fanned themselves with red placards featuring a picture of John Lewis on the bridge in Selma. Brown, who was among those arrested during those Moral Monday protests at the Capitol, relayed Barber’s message from the day before to those at church: “We better vote.” He had some of the NAACP president’s fury, too. “Our coldhearted legislative body and governor refused to extend early voting or open up additional sites,” he said. “Voters stood in long lines because of a cold and callous election board.”
The sun was out in full force, but Brown, who has been pastor at New Light for 40 years, was planning to walk at least part of the mile-long path to the polling place. About two dozen people lined up on the sidewalk outside, led by Brown and Reverend Jesse Jackson, all beginning to sweat in their church clothes as they sang “We Shall Overcome.”
“Our vote gives us a voice,” Brown said as the march began to move down Willow Road. “Many times, we would be silenced if it were not for the privilege of voting.” Jackson leaned over to add, “And to not vote is a vote too.” Behind the marchers, a line of cars filled with the voting cavalry stretched down the road. Many of the churchgoers in line had already voted; Brown wanted everyone in that march regardless — the symbolism was as important as the votes.
When the marchers reached the polling place, they began to chant, “The people, united, will never be defeated,” as those waiting at the finish line cheered. Those who drove were still streaming in like patriotic aftershocks. One woman turned to her friend and said, “I just love being part of this. History is happening.”