BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - As the civil-rights movement was simmering in the early 1960s, black men and women, often accompanied by white sympathizers, boarded buses in the American South and sat wherever they wanted. These “freedom riders” challenged local and state laws and customs that kept the races separate on public transportation as well as in waiting rooms and restrooms.
This summer, a new kind of freedom rider will take to the road as “Freedom Rides for the Unborn” turns the ignition key.
A rally and concert kicked off the first Freedom Ride in Birmingham, Ala., July 23, featuring a new anthem for the rides called “The Least of These.” The following day began with a prayer vigil at Planned Parenthood before pro-life leaders boarded a bus and headed to Atlanta for a late afternoon pro-life service at the tomb of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Priests for Life, the organization behind the Freedom Rides for the Unborn, invited people and families to drive along in a caravan with the freedom bus.
“We’re obviously linking this to the civil-rights movement,” explained Father Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life.
He and Alveda King, Martin Luther King’s niece and director of Priests for Life’s African-American Outreach, envisioned the Freedom Rides for the Unborn and officially introduced the movement in Birmingham April 27.
Linking the Freedom Rides for the Unborn to the concept and method of the 1961 Freedom Rides for civil rights was the result of a conversation Father Pavone and King had while attending a March for Life.
“This is the civil-rights movement” of this century, King concluded.
“I always see the pro-life effort and my own involvement as a striving for freedom,” said Father Pavone. “We’re talking about real people who are really enslaved, oppressed. And the whole ministry of the Gospel and priesthood is what Jesus said about his ministry: ‘I come to proclaim liberty to captives.’”
The Freedom Rides for the Unborn come just months before the 50th anniversary of the first Freedom Rides in 2011. On the original Freedom Ride, 13 people boarded a bus in Washington to travel to New Orleans to test a Supreme Court decision that outlawed racial segregation on interstate transportation vehicles. When the riders ran into opposition in Alabama, hundreds of others joined them. That one Freedom Ride multiplied into 60 across many states.
Plans call for today’s Freedom Rides for the Unborn also to multiply.
“This is not just a one-time event,” stressed Father Pavone, who looks forward to scheduling dozens of rides in all parts of the country over the next year. “We want it to be a continuing opportunity for unifying the pro-life movement.”
‘Truth Will Rise’
The symbolism of the bus and the ride is significant.
“You know a destination, and you’re set in that direction and moving,” explained Father Pavone. “With the bus ride we are on our way to a specific destination — in this case, protection for the unborn. The bus brings in the idea there are many people who can be riding the same time to the same destination.”
The goal is also to mobilize and unify people.
King sees the rides bringing together “pro-life people from many walks of life, from across the country, of (different) denominations, ethnic groups, ages, younger and older,” she said. “We’re all together for a common cause, and that is for life.”
Birmingham has significant memories for King, whose father, A.D. King, was also a civil-rights leader. Their home was bombed in 1963, and a classmate was killed in the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church across the way.
Yet her family of Christian preachers - father, grandfather and uncle - “preached the love of God and we’re all equal in the sight of God,” said King.
She envisions the same ultimate success with Freedom Rides for the Unborn as the original civil-rights Freedom Rides realized: This ride will be “for justice and freedom for all, from conception until natural death.”
“Certainly in this decade America has become pro-life,” she explained. “We are moving toward a victory. My uncle would always say, ‘Truth crushed to earth will rise again.’ And the truth for life is arising for America.”
Freedom From Lies
Among the pro-life leaders who planned to be on the first Freedom Ride for the Unborn are Theresa and Kevin Burke, founders of Rachel’s Vineyard.
“Freedom from lies” is one lesson the rides will teach, said Kevin Burke, because “abortion from the very beginning is where lies are implanted in the heart, particularly of fathers.” Once a father denies the truth of his vocation as a man to defend the life of his child regardless of his circumstances, Burke said, he is deeply wounded. “He becomes imprisoned by those lies and needs to be set free from those lies.”
Theresa Burke finds great significance in linking the Freedom Rides for the Unborn with the civil-rights Freedom Rides. “It’s a wonderful unification of lots of different people and history together to take this to the next level to promote freedom for everyone, including the unborn,” she said.
Furthermore, the Burkes believe the symbolic connection of the first Freedom Rides with the new ones also underlines the generational trauma on African-American families: Many minority communities are targeted for abortion and contraception, with abortion clinics set up in very poor neighborhoods.
In support of the Freedom Rides, Birmingham Bishop Robert Baker sent a letter to all parishes to encourage participation.
“It’s another event like the March for Life in Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the plight of the unborn,” Bishop Baker told the Register. “It’s important to do all humanly possible to underline the moral gravity of abortion and help women in distress to find alternatives. The Freedom Ride for life is a visible, peaceful expression of concern for the right to life for the unborn. It is in the tradition of Freedom Rides for civil rights in the past.”
Those who cannot be on an actual Freedom Ride can still participate. Said Father Pavone, “We want to mobilize people right where they are. We want people to identify themselves as Freedom Riders for the unborn.”
Priests for Life is offering Freedom Rider lapel buttons, and people can participate in an ongoing prayer campaign.
“Prayer is at the heart of this pro-life movement,” Father Pavone emphasized. “People need to pray very deliberately, specifically to end abortion.”
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.