My first year at Duke, I enrolled in a class with the Center for Documentary Studies that would mold my college experience. It didn’t introduce me to professors, internships or leadership positions. Instead it introduced me to a little old man at a march in downtown Raleigh. It was the first time I had been to Raleigh. It was cold and overcast, yet, for some reason, thousands of people had decided to assemble with the North Carolina NAACP for the annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street march. I talked to people with clipboards about voting against North Carolina’s Amendment One, which defined marriage between one man and one woman. People told me how proposed voter ID legislation would make it especially difficult for low-income people, people of color, seniors and students like myself to vote—essentially functioning like a new-age Jim Crow. But what left the most lasting impression was a conversation I had with this little, fiery, old man.
He probably doesn’t even remember me, but his few words changed how I saw my time at Duke and in North Carolina. He told me he was from Alabama, but recently moved to North Carolina because he wanted to be a part of what the NAACP was trying to accomplish. Although he came from a long line of KKK family members, he got involved with the civil rights movement at a very young age.
He recounted conversations he had with people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Stokely Carmichael. He said he enjoyed the time he spent in North Carolina with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I wasn’t quite sure why, but I was convinced that, if this man who was so connected to the civil rights movement felt like he needed to be in North Carolina, I had to make the move to North Carolina myself. Sure, I was living in Durham, but I needed to immerse myself in the movement that was outside of the East Campus boundaries. Soon after my brief conversation with this man, I found his name appearing in my textbooks: Bob Zellner, lifetime activist, the first white field secretary for the SNCC and member of the Congress of Racial Equality.
The time between my first HK on J and my last would change the status of our state dramatically. Our state was the first to cut federal unemployment benefits for over 170,000 people. The North Carolina General Assembly cut Planned Parenthood funding. They created a commission that will pave the way for fracking as early as 2015. They cut over $66 million in funding from the UNC system for the upcoming year and made college more inaccessible by raising tuition rates state-wide. They cut public hospital appropriations. They chose to not expand Medicaid, which would have insured over a half a million people and created an estimated 25,000 jobs. They passed Voter ID legislation making it impossible for a Duke student without a North Carolina ID or passport to vote. They made it difficult for high school dropouts to obtain GEDs. The list goes on. I find myself infuriated by the legislation, but also disconnected. Many Duke students like myself have the opt-out option. We can leave, most of us have health insurance, our school is privately funded, we can just vote at home, we could get an abortion if we needed one, we probably don’t know what it’s like to have our unemployment benefits cut by $200 a month. Choosing to not be involved, however, is not an option for the friends I met at HK on J. Our community is fighting an uphill battle against aggressively classist, sexist and racist legislation and some of us have the privilege of being spectators.
Luckily, along with abhorrent legislative changes came a movement. A year after meeting Bob Zellner, I sat with him and other members of the North Carolina Student Power Union and the NAACP to discuss civil disobedience and the start of what would later be known as Moral Mondays. These Moral Mondays attracted thousands and are now the nucleus of progressivism and hope in the South. The people affected by these legislative changes and people who feel like fighting for a better North Carolina drove the movement. They changed me, someone who thought I could casually neglect the injustices in my community.
Although the state is changing, Duke has remained the same. Sure we launched new initiatives, programs and campaigns, but we aren’t thinking of what it means to move North Carolina forward. We aren’t thinking about how regressive legislation keeps students and faculty from considering coming here. We think about our commitment to the community in terms of how we, the prestigious institution, can help them. We don’t think about how we could join the grassroots movement that already exists.
If you care about women’s rights, voting rights, workers rights and environmental justice, march with us on February 8. North Carolina is moving forward—being pushed by civil rights activists old and young. Come to Raleigh, join the Moral March so Duke and North Carolina can move forward together, not one step back.
Adrienne Harreveld is a Trinity senior. Her column normally runs every other Monday. Send Adrienne a message on Twitter @AdrienneLiege.