Written by Pamela Merritt for RHRealityCheck.org – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.
When I read that Dr. Alveda King is planning a revival of the famed 1960’s civil rights Freedom Rides to protest abortion in general and abortion within black communities in particular, I was quite frankly disturbed. The Freedom Rides are every American’s legacy and serve to remind us all of the fact that rights without access and freedom from violence are rights in name only. Dr. Alveda King, the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and an activist opposed to abortion rights, is deeply involved in the campaign to frame abortion as a tool of genocide against black people. RH Reality Check has done extensive coverage of the abortion as genocide conspiracy theory and I have followed news of billboards that claim that black children are an endangered “species” and the attempt to pass legislation in Georgia to “protect” women of color from abortion as racial discrimination. Those who oppose abortion rights using the black genocide conspiracy theory isn’t new and it is a disturbing tactic on it’s own, but this latest move to co-opt Civil Rights history is a new low.
My father was 22 years old in 1961 when the Freedom Rides began. Although he lived in Pennsylvania at the time, he was deeply concerned about the racial oppression in the South. Years later, he would tell me what it felt like to watch people challenge racial segregation on public transportation and interstate buses in the South and how watching the violence their actions provoked changed his life. My father, and many Americans like him, became a Civil Rights activist because he was inspired by the courage of other activists and enlightened by images of the violent resistance to social change that greeted the Freedom Rides in the South. When he spoke of the Freedom Rides, he always reminded me that they had a purpose – to make the promise of equality a reality and release Southern blacks from the limiting oppression of Jim Crow. In short, the Freedom Rides were about access and an individual’s ability to exercise her or his rights without fear of violence.
Think about that for a moment – regular folks taking part in training on how to protest without violence and then jumping on buses to travel to the segregated South so that they could challenge communities that were denying black citizens access to facilities despite Supreme Court rulings striking down racial discrimination. Now think about the so-called pro-life freedom rides proposed by Dr. Alveda King – individuals opposed to abortion rights taking part in training on how to protest a woman’s right to abortion services, despite Supreme Court rulings guaranteeing that right, and then jumping on buses to travel to cities so that they can challenge communities that are granting women access to healthcare providers and abortion services.
There is something uniquely insulting about a tactic used to fight against the denial of rights and access now being used to fight for the denial of rights and access.
Dr. Alveda King has the right to protest against abortion rights and she even has the right to insult the legacy of the Civil Right’s movement by appropriating language and tactics. In 2010 America, Dr. Alveda King can organize a tour, charter buses, rent billboards and protest at community health care providers in all 50 states if she wants to. If Dr. Alveda King gets hungry along the way, she can go to a restaurant and eat, if she gets thirsty she can go to any drinking fountain and drink and when she gets tired she will be able to go to a hotel and rest.
She has those rights and so many more because people fought for them, risked their lives and then returned to risk those lives again.
I stress “for” because that is a crucial word – a legacy of the Civil Rights movement is the struggle for rights, for the access without fear of violence that makes a right more than a mere suggestion. The recent healthcare reform battle and subsequent attempts to restrict access to abortion services at the state level make it clear that those who oppose abortion rights are not fighting for anything; they are fighting against something. Dr. Alveda King and others who oppose abortion rights are fighting against access to health care, against access to comprehensive sex education and against a woman’s right to abortion services. They seek to reinstate a system of separate and unequal access to services by passing legislation that would make abortion available only to those who live in certain states or who can afford to scale the hurdles of abortion restrictions. Their goals stand in opposition to freedom and are an insult to the principle of equal justice.
“Pro-life” Freedom Rides are set to begin this summer in Birmingham Alabama.