In North Carolina, 'Moral Mondays' A Day For Protest

Weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden talks with Willie Jennings, a North Carolina clergyman who was arrested while protesting against the policies of his state's Republican-led legislature. Jacki then checks in with Republican state Sen. Thom Goolsby, who wrote an acerbic commentary about the protesters.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up, we'll take a listen to the colorful language of the mob at Whitey Bulger's trial in Boston. But first, in North Carolina, every Monday for the past two months, hundreds have protested at the state capital in what is being called Moral Mondays. The protesters are demonstrating against the policies of the state's Republican-led government while peaceful scores have been arrested from elected officials to doctors.

At last week's protest, Willie Jennings was one of the 80 arrested. It was the 52-year-old's first arrest. He's a clergyman and professor of theology at Duke Divinity School. Willie Jennings, welcome to the show.

WILLIE JENNINGS: Thank you. Glad to be here.

LYDEN: I was struck by a phrase that you wrote in an essay in the journal, Religion Dispatches, that your parents warned you as a black man in the South never to get arrested. What made you change your mind?

JENNINGS: A black man in this country knows that it's very easy to step on the path that leads to incarceration. And so my dear dad, one of the things that he impressed upon me very early is that we're going to do everything possible, Willie, to make sure your entire life you never see the inside of a jail cell or prison cell.

So it was a psychological battle for me to do this because I knew that in some ways, I was breaking a sacred promise to my dad. But there was another promise that I had also made to him, and that I would try to embody the teachings and the life of Jesus. And concern for the poor, oppressed, vulnerable is at the heart of that.

LYDEN: What in the legislative agenda do you consider immoral?

JENNINGS: At the heart of it is the lack of consideration of how their policies and bills affect people with little or no resources. For example, July 1 of this year, 70,000 North Carolinians will be without unemployment insurance. Here are people who are trying to find jobs, caring for their children, caring for elderly. And in July 1, they will have nothing.

LYDEN: We'll come back to professor of theology at Duke Divinity School, Willie Jennings, in a moment. But first, to learn more about the demonstrations going on in North Carolina, we also turn to Republican State Senator Thom Goolsby.

STATE SENATOR THOM GOOLSBY: It's good to be with you.

LYDEN: So you've been pretty outspoken about the Moral Monday protests. What's been your reaction? Have you witnessed any personally?

GOOLSBY: Yes. I always try to go to any and every protest or meeting that's held up in the general assembly. We consider it the people's house, and we're happy to have folks up there any and every day.

LYDEN: How do you respond to those protesters who call the government's proposed policies in the state legislature regressive in North Carolina?

GOOLSBY: Well, I continue to ask, where were these protesters when the Democrats bankrupted our state three short years ago? When I first arrived with the Republican majority, our state was on the edge of total bankruptcy. We have been crisis managing our state since then, and we've done a lot of good things. We have balanced the budget, put about a billion dollars back into people's pockets, and we've seen 179,000 new jobs created from that. And we are well on our way to trying to institute some real tax reform.

LYDEN: Senator Goolsby, you recently wrote an op-ed in a local journal that called the Moral Monday protests, as they've been described, Moron Monday. And you referred to some of the activists as old hippies. Can you explain to us what you meant? Some people have taken issue with your comments.

GOOLSBY: For those who read my weekly columns, they know that I'm quite colorful in those. And the recent polls show that about 60-plus percent of all the people that show up are older white folks. That is true. There were a lot of puppets there last week, big 20-foot tall puppets with arms that people were manipulating. There's a really nice Christian theme to what they say that I very much appreciate, a lot of good prayer.

I do listen and pay attention, and I very much appreciate the good attitude everybody has, the fact that nobody's been violent, that I've been proud of our police that nobody has been roughhoused or mishandled. And it's just all been done the right way. And they sure have a right to come up there, not just once a week, but every day if they want.

LYDEN: I'm just wondering, do you think they'll have any impact on influencing the legislative proposals and laws?

GOOLSBY: If they're going to ask us to increase taxes or not do physically responsible things, no, we're not going to spend money we don't have. We don't think you can tax people into prosperity. The people that bothered me are the ones that don't both to show up. It is a participatory government. You do get the government you deserve.

LYDEN: Willie Jennings takes issue with Senator Goolsby's characterization of the protesters as old hippies and hopes that he sees beyond the stereotypes.

JENNINGS: I would hope that he and the other legislators would notice one thing. People like me who never been arrested are not leftist radicals. I stood next to another minister who was a rabbi. There was a Muslim cleric. There were social workers, doctors. They don't make their way down to Raleigh every week to protest. So I would hope that the legislature would say to itself if the people who really make North Carolina work, these people are upset, then maybe before we push through what we want, maybe we ought to ask ourselves, is this what North Carolinians want?

LYDEN: That's Willie Jennings, professor of theology at Duke Divinity School. He was one of the many protesters arrested recently during a protest in Raleigh that North Carolinians call Moral Mondays.

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