The sweet taste of voting rights in North Carolina

Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, at left, and Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II of the N.C. NAACP, with the microphone, at this week's unveiling of the company's new ice cream flavor, sales of which will benefit the civil rights group's voter engagement efforts. (Photo by Rebekah Barber.)

May 17 is a historic day. In 1954, it was the day when the Supreme Court of the United States issued its ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case, declaring segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Three years later, in 1957, it was the day that organizers from all across the country gathered at the Lincoln Memorial for the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom and listened as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his defiant speech, "Give Us the Ballot."

On that date in 2016, history was again made in the fight for equality. At North Carolina Central University, the oldest liberal arts HBCU in the University of North Carolina system, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II of the N.C. NAACP and Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of the Vermont-based ice cream company Ben & Jerry's joined together to dedicate a new ice cream flavor, "Empower Mint," to the ongoing struggle for voting rights. Sales of the flavor will benefit the N.C. NAACP's voter engagement efforts.

"By releasing this flavor here today, we're hoping to make North Carolina first in the empowerment of its citizens," Cohen told the crowd.

In 2013, North Carolina passed what's considered the most restrictive new voting law in the country. In addition to establishing a photo ID requirement, House Bill 589 also shortened the early voting period and ended same-day registration. A legal challenge to the law brought by the state NAACP and other groups continues to make its way through the courts, with an appeal of a recent ruling upholding the law scheduled for June 21 in Richmond, Virginia.

Barber noted that in joining the NAACP in the voting rights struggle, Ben & Jerry's is following the path of those like singer and actor Harry Belafonte, who during the Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches in 1965 gathered a coalition of musicians, business people, actors and others to help raise money for the movement and uplift the struggle.

He contrasted this "moral money," as he called it, with the "mean money" spent by businesspeople like the family behind the Kansas-based Koch Industries oil and chemical conglomerate. In the 1950s, company founder Fred Koch was part of a group of businessmen who founded the far-right John Birch Society, which fought school integration — a fight continued in recent years by his billionaire sons David and Charles Koch.

It is fitting that this new partnership between voting rights advocates and Ben & Jerry's was unveiled in Durham, North Carolina, since ice cream played a part in the historic fight for voting rights in the city. In 1957, Rev. Douglas E. Moore and others were arrested after staging a sit-in at the Royal Ice Cream Parlor, sparking a court case over segregation and inspiring future sit-ins.

"Years ago we had to sit in at the counter to try to get ice cream," Barber said, "but now ice cream has come to us to help us counter all this oppression that is going on."

(Disclosure: Rebekah Barber is the daughter of Rev. Barber.)