Duke University Historians Arrested in Voting Rights Demonstration

By Story of America Team

If the North Carolina General Assembly is concerned about its place in history, it looks like they’ve got something to worry about. Several of the world’s top historians, three of whom appear in the video below, have been arrested in recent days protesting what Rev. Dr. William Barber II called an “avalanche of extremist policies that threaten health care, education, voting rights.”

The civil disobedience campaign is being led by Barber, head of the North Carolina NAACP. Each Friday for the past three weeks, they have announced their intentions for the following Monday. So far, over 50 people have been arrested. This past Friday, we filmed as more than a dozen people volunteered to risk arrest on Monday May 13.

chafe_arrested.jpgIn a widely read op-ed published on Thursday in the Raleigh News and Observer, William Chafe of Duke University and Jacquelyn Dowd Hall of UNC Chapel Hill wrote:

This week, we were arrested at the General Assembly. We chose the path of civil disobedience – along with 29 others – as a means of calling attention to the headlong assault on our state’s history by the governor and the state legislature.

We are not radicals. Each of us has been president of the Organization of American Historians, the leading professional organization of all American historians. We cherish the history we have spent our lives studying. Yet now we see a new generation in Raleigh threatening to destroy the very history we have spent our lives celebrating. 

I believe that Robert R. Korstad and Tim Tyson, also of Duke University, contributed to this piece, but the Observer only allows two authors for op-eds. The piece concludes:

This political juggernaut runs totally contrary to what North Carolina has stood for during the last half century. It represents class warfare against the middle class and the working-class residents of our state. Justice lies at the core of our civic life. And we are all responsible for sustaining that justice.

As Robert F. Kennedy told students in apartheid South Africa in 1966, “Each time a [person] stands up … to improve the lot of others, or strike out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walks of oppression and resistance.”

That is why we stood up, why we got arrested.

The historians criticize the policies being protested proposed because: (1) they hurt the middle class and the poor (2) they give tax cuts to the wealthy, and (3) they restrict voting rights. In his speeches, Rev. Dr. Barber makes the connection between the three.  

One of the policies briefly touched upon, but never fully explained in this video, is a private school voucher law that would redirect public money to private schools. Critics of this policy say that this will lead to a resegregation of North Carolina’s school system, with the children of wealthy families attending private academies (with public subsidies), while children of poor and middle class families are left with public schools that are even more poorly funded thanks to taxpayer dollars going to private schools instead. (While we were filming in Alabama, a similar bill was rushed through the state legislature, outraging voters who complained it was done “in the dead of night” and “behind closed doors.”)  

One of the voting restriction bills mentioned in this video but not explained is aimed at college voters. Despite the fact that the Supreme Court has ruled that college students have a right to vote where they go to school, Republican lawmakers in North Carolina are seeking to discourage them from doing so by penalizing their parents on their tax returns. Below is a list of voting restriction laws being pushed by North Carolina Republicans, borrowed from SouthernStudies.org.

Senate Bill 721, the so-called “Elections Omnibus” bill slashes early voting — used by more than 6 million N.C. voters since being launched in 2008 — to just six days; eliminates same-day voter registration; delays by five years the eligibility of those with a past felony conviction to vote (and then with new restrictions); and includes the promised new photo voter ID restriction.

Senate Bill 666 cuts early voting (by a week) and cuts same-day registration at early voting sites. It further proposes a tax penalty for parents whose children register to vote at their college address, curtails early voting, and expands the rights of party-appointed “poll observers.”*

Senate Bill 667, also targets student voters, duplicating the call for a tax penalty on parents who claim students as dependents, as well as erecting new requirements for student voters that will affect their DMV records and tuition rates.

Senate Bill 541 guts North Carolina’s landmark Public Campaign Financing Fund — a popular program that’s been used by 80 percent of qualifying judicial candidates to help keep special interest money out of judge’s elections — and the Voter-Owned Elections Fund, which provides similar public grants to candidates for several Council of State races. (SB 39 also proposes eliminating the judicial public financing program.)

In this video from the NAACP (shot and edited by Eric Preston who shared footage with us on our latest video), Dr. Tim Tyson explains at a press conference why he decided to get arrested:

Here is a video of the tail end of a press conference during which Rev. Dr. Barber took questions. 

Click here to see video from an expert hearing on voting laws, in particular voter ID restrictions, held by the North Carolina House of Delegates a few months ago. 

Finally, in this video Rev. Dr. Barber provides an historical context that the professors mentioned above would sign on to. In fact, Prof. Tyson is the chief historian for the North Carolina NAACP, of which Barber is president.