Freedom Rides for the Unborn is the Latest Attempt by the Anti-Abortion Movement to Turn the Civil Rights Movement on its Head


Bill Berkowitz

Priests for Life, a long-time anti-abortion organization, launches a campaign aimed at fusing anti-abortion activism to the civil rights movement.

Whatever else one can say about the anti-abortion movement, you have to give it credit for a certain amount of creativity in its single-minded pursuit of totally eliminating a woman’s right to have an abortion. You see this creativity in a broad array of strategies and tactics the movement employs. There have been some relatively big plays recently, including a bevy of new restrictive anti-abortion laws enacted in dozens of states around the country. There is also the awareness of the importance of growing the movement, especially by focusing on bringing young people aboard. Over the past few years, well-trained young anti-abortion activists, armed with hidden cameras aimed at Planned Parenthood clinics, have tried baiting staffers into unlawful activities.

There are a number of other campaigns and actions that try to keep the base focused and keep the issue alive on right-wing news sites and blogs. Did you know, for example, that last week was National Pro-Life T-Shirt Week (NPLTW)? During the week, NPLTW organizers encouraged young people to proudly wear pro-life T-shirts, and in conjunction with the T-shirt campaign, the American Life League, a long-time anti-abortion organization, unveiled the first anti-abortion iPhone application.

Recently, the leader of one of the most vocal anti-abortion organizations teamed up with the niece of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to announce the launch of “a Freedom Ride campaign -– Freedom Rides for the Unborn -- to help raise awareness about abortion and other acts that ‘destroy’ human life,” Charisma magazine recently reported. The campaign was announced at a Birmingham, Alabama press conference, where a number of African American religious attended and the song – Freedom Rides have to have a song attached to it – “Least of These," written by Christian singer/songwriter Jamie Owens Collins, made its debut as an “anthem.”

In short, anti-abortion activists are now trying to link their movement with America’s civil right movement and heroes as 2011 will mark the 50th anniversary of the historic Freedom Rides. According to a Priests for Life statement, the anniversary presented the organization “with the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that the fight against abortion is the civil rights battle of the 21st century.”

“The antiabortion movement has tried to hijack the legacy of the civil rights movement for many years, to little effect,” Frederick Clarkson, a long-time journalist covering the right, told BuzzFlash. “The African American civil rights movement is a widely accepted profoundly moral crusade, led by a martyred minister who has a national holiday named for him. The conservative evangelicals and Catholics who have comprised the Religious Right and the related antiabortion movement for decades were mostly on the sidelines or on the wrong side of the civil rights movement,” Clarkson the co-founder of the blog Talk2Action and the author of “Eternal Hostility,” an early but still useful book on the Religious Right, pointed out.

“Younger Religious Right leaders have long sought to at once obscure that legacy, while simultaneously attempting to claim the moral legitimacy of the civil right movement as their own. It hasn't worked, and rightly so,” Clarkson added. "It is the movement that stands up every time human life and dignity are cast down," Father Frank Pavone, the long-time leader of Priests for Life, told Charisma magazine. "It is the movement that cries out for equal protection when some are denied their most basic rights."

“In those days we were fighting for the civil rights of people being persecuted ... because of their skin color," said Alveda King, niece of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and director of African-American outreach for Priests for Life. "Today, in the 21st century, the battle still rages," she added. "And yet another precious class of human beings is now suffering discrimination due to their age and place of residence. They are temporarily housed in the wombs of their mothers, and the threat to them is abortion."

Frederick Clarkson characterized Priests for Life's initiative as “interesting” recognizing that “Alveda King has been featured by the antiabortion movement for many years with little effect. However,” he added, “mimicking the Freedom Rides will be, if nothing else, a sideshow diversion from international outrage over the role of Catholic Church leaders in the enabling of serial child abusers and rapists in the United States and around the world”

According to Charisma, “an awareness campaign will run up to a national Pro-life Freedom Ride from Birmingham, AL, to Atlanta July 23-25. Riders will attend a concert and rally July 23 at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center and then board the bus bound for Atlanta. Dozens of rides may be scheduled across the country over the next year.”

The conservative news service also reported that supporters of the campaign include several “African-American pro-life advocates including the Rev. Sam Mosteller, Georgia State President for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Catherine Davis, director of minority outreach for Georgia Right to Life, which helped sponsor a billboard campaign around Atlanta that proclaim, ‘Black children are an endangered species.’"

Clarkson noted that “Priests for Life's initiative is interesting. Alveda King has been featured by the anti-abortion movement for many years with little effect. However, mimicking the Freedom Rides will be, if nothing else, a sideshow.”

In the end, the Freedom Rides for the Unborn will probably draw only a small cadre of fellow travelers, elicit a smidgeon of media coverage, and, ultimately, become a minor footnote in the decades long abortion wars. Nevertheless, by launching the campaign, Priests for Life makes it clear that it is always thinking about how to move its movement forward.

Unfortunately, pro-choice forces can not make that same claim.