RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Following a year marked by hundreds of arrests and national publicity but few policy victories, leaders of the movement opposing the Republican agenda in North Carolina vowed Saturday to keep fighting and to speak clearly at the ballot box in 2014.
Thousands of people angry with GOP policies approved in 2013 were energized while attending the "Moral March on Raleigh," the largest gathering of its kind since weekly Monday protests began last spring at the Legislative Building.
"We return to Raleigh with a renewed strength and a renewed sense of urgency," the Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP shouted to a packed crowd that extended at least three blocks along Fayetteville Street south from the old Capitol building. "This Moral March inaugurates a fresh year of grassroots empowerment, voter education, litigation and nonviolent direct action."
Raleigh police didn't give an attendance estimate. Event organizers predicted between 20,000 and 30,000 people would attend when seeking a permit with the city to march from near Shaw University less than a mile. It took more than an hour for the last marchers to reach their destination.
There were no reported arrests or disturbances. More than 900 people were arrested during more than a dozen protests during the 2013 legislative session in nonviolent opposition to the GOP agenda. Saturday's event was not intended to include such civil disobedience.
Event organizers said people from more than 30 states planned to attend the rally, a reflection of the spread of the "Moral Monday" protests to nearby Southern states. It was a diverse group of rally participants who chanted, sang and danced at the end, waving placards on topics ranging from campaign finance and education funding to gay rights and abortion rights.
"Someone can say, 'what can one man or one woman do?" asked Kirkland Carden, 25, a Georgia State University student who traveled with Planned Parenthood organizers to participate. "But when everybody comes here, you get waves like this."
The NAACP and like-minded advocacy groups have held similar annual winter marches and rallies for the past seven years demanding changes in North Carolina government, but none received the kind of attention as Saturday's event. Everything changed when the Republican-led General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory passed laws last year opponents call extreme and backward.
Those laws include a refusal to expand Medicaid to more working people under the federal health care law, a photo identification requirement to vote in person, additional abortion rules, taxpayer-funded grants for low-income children to attend public schools and tax changes critics say hurt the poor.
"I mean, this legislature is disgusting," said Susan Stone, 71, of Black Mountain. She left on a bus at 2 a.m. Saturday from Asheville to attend the rally. She held a sign reading, "Why don't you care about the least of these — God does!"
Democrats in the General Assembly were largely helpless to stop the laws. McCrory, House Speaker Thom Tillis, Senate leader Phil Berger and allies defended them as promoting a stronger economy, more jobs, better educational opportunities for students in failing public schools and improved confidence in the election system.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People or other groups and voters have sued to challenge the elections overhaul law, taxpayer-funded education grants and public school teacher tenure changes. The cases are pending.
Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett, said Saturday the NAACP was being hypocritical for directing marchers on a document to bring photo identification when it opposes a photo ID requirement for voting. Lewis helped shepherd a voter ID law through the legislature.
The conservative North Carolina Values Coalition criticized the event beforehand, saying it was being spearheaded by groups that support abortion and gay marriage. The Republican General Assembly put on the ballot a constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage, which voters approved in 2012.
"The so-called 'moral march on Raleigh' is anything but moral," coalition executive director Tami Fitzgerald said in a release.
Barber said Saturday it was the "Moral March" movement that had the high ground on supporting equality and justice for all and would keep working against Republican leaders. He said the NAACP would ramp up a voter registration and education effort in all 100 counties this year while continuing to fight bad laws in court.
"We will encourage voter turnout regardless of party," Barber told the crowd. Speaking rhetorically to Republican state government leaders, he added later: "You don't have enough political power to vote us away."
Attendees, who swayed arm-in-arm while singing "We Shall Overcome" at the rally's close, went away emotional and enthusiastic.
"This huge demonstration of unity and commitment to each other, it's a beautiful thing," said East Carolina University student Demonte Alford, 22, of Laurinburg. "We got our marching orders today."