LAURINBURG — Demonte Alford doesn’t consider himself a skilled speaker.
But on Saturday in Raleigh, the Scotland County native and East Carolina University student took to a podium to speak to the thousands gathered at the 8th annual Historic Thousands on Jones Street, a mass march that has been serving since it’s inception as a rallying point for social causes — this year, mainly as an outlet to protest changes made by the state’s Republican-led legislation.
Though Alford, who has attended the event seven times, spoke mainly of the “14 Point People’s Agenda” carried by the state chapter of the NAACP which includes funding for schools, raising the minimum wage, protecting the rights of immigrants and abolishing the death penalty, he said the greater point he intended to convey was that this is a time for young people to speak up.
“I really feel that this time and moment in history, if we were to stay silent as young people that would be betrayal of our elders, our children and our future,” he said. “It would be extremely irresponsible to let this moment go by … I feel like this is a pivotal point in our history.”
The thousands that gathered at Shaw University early Saturday and later cheered and sang as they marched through downtown Raleigh included those rallying in support of not only points supported by the NAACP, but also in support of women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights and decriminalization of marijuana. A small few represented socialist groups, including a group that based their platform on raising minimum wage to $15.
Alford wasn’t surprised at the diversity.
“We are all one family because at the end of the day justice is justice,” he said. “… There’s no reason for us not to work together because at the end of the day we are all humans.
“When you craft public policy, whether you mean to or not, you have an impact on everyone. When we say that voter ID laws are racist, it’s not because there is a politician deliberately trying to block out one population from voting, but the result that happens is racist. It’s a fruit that bears.”
Alford was one of a small group that represented Scotland County at the rally, including Dominique Penny, who also spoke. About 22 people loaded a charter bus, secured by the county’s NAACP chapter, at North Laurinburg Elementary at 6 a.m. Saturday to make the journey, and a bus of about 10 students from The University of North Carolina at Pembroke made the trip, organized by the office of Diversity and Inclusion.
It was James Hampton’s third time attending the rally. The 50-year-old student of the university this year took his two sons, their first time at the event.
“It was real, meaningful, something that was needed,” he said, “a way to voice opposition to all that has been going on, including reversal of the voting rights that Dr. King enforced.”
Hampton, of Rowland, says the economic depression of neighboring Robeson County remains an issue at the front of his mind. The town doesn’t even have a full-fledged grocery store, he said.
“I want to know why jobs aren’t being brought to this area,” he said.
Alford said he, too, has been propelled to political involvement by his childhood in Laurinburg, spent witnessing the less-than-desirable economic conditions of his friends and classmates and the struggles they have faced. His interest in history as well as involvement in Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church and the activity of the Scotland County NAACP said became a catalyst.
“It led me want to be someone who could go out and fight for other people,” he said.
Some that boarded the Scotland County bus were attending for their first time, but none were apprehensive about what the day had in store. Others, like Barbara Powell, who attend every year, were looking forward to a crowd they had anticipated would be larger than the years before.
Powell said she just likes to be in an atmosphere of togetherness. Her biggest concern was putting an end to violence in Scotland County and across the state — adding that “if everyone would come together and pray,” a lot of problems would be solved.
Conservatives, including members of the NC Values Coalition, have said participants in the demonstrations have their values out of order. In a statement, Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the coalition, said the group cannot call themselves moral because they support abortion and gay marriage.
But Alford and others believe there is strength in numbers.
“There is an old African proverb that says ‘If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together,’” he said. “That sums up everything right there. … Everybody is coming together and holding hands because that’s what happens when we all get together. It pushes us forward.”
Abbi Overfelt can be reached at 910-276-2311, ext. 12. Follow her on Twitter @aoinscotco.