Paul Johnson, historian, from his book Heroes (HarperCollins, 2007):
In 1963, a few months before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, he and many other civil rights activists converged on Birmingham, Alabama to challenge racial segregation. Their campaign was marked by intensive planning and discipline, because the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was intent not only on a message but on delivering it the right way. Volunteers for the Birmingham campaign were screened and trained, as King recounted in Why We Can’t Wait. He noted, “Every volunteer was required to sign a Commitment Card.”
To what did the Birmingham activists commit?
I hereby pledge myself – my person and body – to the nonviolent movement. Therefore I will keep the following ten commandments:
- Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
- Remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory.
- Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
- Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
- Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
- Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
- Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
- Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
- Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
- Follow the directions of the movement and of the captain of the demonstration
King added, “We made it clear that we would not send anyone out to demonstrate who had not convinced himself and us that he could accept and endure violence without retaliating” during the campaign. That took guts. It meant putting aside the natural right of self-defense during the demonstration, even as they faced people who had no qualms about using violence, including bombs.
True, Anyone could sign a piece of paper (or in this age, click on “I agree”). So why bother? Because, then and now, nonviolence during a public demonstration isn’t something to take for granted. Public affirmation reinforces personal commitment. Public affirmation is part of accountability to the larger community. It draws a clear line between those protesting peacefully and those willing to resort to violence to impede them.
Today, 40 Days for Life campaigns challenge abortion and affirm the right to life. The founders of 40DFL are Christian, and the program is grounded in Christian spirituality and a commitment to nonviolence. One requirement for participants is signing the 40DFL statement of peace. Without that commitment, one is not a participant, even if standing on the sidewalk outside an abortion facility during a 40 DFL campaign. Here it is.
I testify to the following:
- I will only pursue peaceful solutions to the violence of abortion when volunteering with the 40 Days for Life campaign
- I will show compassion and reflect Christ’s love to all abortion facility or Planned Parenthood employees, volunteers, and customers
- I understand that acting in a violent or harmful manner immediately and completely disassociates me from the 40 Days for Life campaign
- I am in no way associated with Planned Parenthood, its affiliates or any abortion provider
While standing in the public right-of-way in front of the abortion facility or Planned Parenthood location:
- I will not obstruct the driveways or sidewalk while standing in the public right of way
- I will not litter on the public right-of-way
- I will closely attend to any children I bring to the prayer vigil
- I will not threaten, physically contact, or verbally abuse abortion facility or Planned Parenthood employees, volunteers or customers
- I will not damage private property
- I will cooperate with local authorities
As I sign on once again for 40DFL – for the Statement of Peace must be reaffirmed with each new campaign – I want to take the Birmingham commitment to heart as well. There are no doubt those who will take umbrage at any suggestion that today’s pro-life movement is part of the civil rights movement that came to flower at that March on Washington in ’63. In reply, I can only avow that life is the fundamental civil and human right. Abortion takes lives, and there are businesses that profit from it. Let peaceful public witness to that continue.
I don’t pretend to have endured the physical abuse to which the Birmingham demonstrators were subjected. Their example is awesome even fifty years on. They faced police dogs and fire hoses, and still made a commitment to nonviolent public witness and action. The best way for me to honor their memory is to emulate them, even though I’ve faced nothing worse so far than name-calling.
Recall that the nonviolent demonstrators in Birmingham were far from passive. There was urgency in their goal of justice and reconciliation. From a 1963 UPI report on the Birmingham demonstrations: “King reacted strongly, however, to a statement by Attorney General Robert Kennedy suggesting that the all-out integration drive here was ill-timed. ‘I grow weary of those who ask us to slow down,’ King told a reporter. ‘I begin to feel that the moderates in America are our worst enemy.'”
The events and words of 1963 aren’t frozen in place, devoid of application to our own times. View them not as an archaeologist views a dig, but as a traveler views a map: take this path, not that one. I could do worse than follow the people who signed those cards in Birmingham.
[Updated 7:00 p.m. with information on coverage by other media outlets, with my thanks to Tara Bishop for the news.]
Pennacook Street in Manchester is just off Elm, the main drag of the largest city in New Hampshire (population 110,000). It’s a quiet street with triple-deckers along one side and a Planned Parenthood facility on the other. Ten pro-life witnesses can crowd the block, as I’ve seen during 40 Days for Life.
Today, a day of nationwide protest against Planned Parenthood’s baby-parts business, 175 people gathered before I stopped counting. The number of nearby parking spots was nowhere near adequate for the occasion, and people parked at whatever distance they could and arrived on Pennacook Street ten, fifteen, thirty minutes after the event kicked off. The crowd grew and grew.The nine pro-PP counter-protesters contented themselves with standing along Elm Street, half a block from the abortion facility. They couldn’t get any closer.
A police supervisor drove by as the protest began, saw that all was well, and went on his way. Security guards hired by PP kept a watchful eye on the demonstrators as they filed by. One brightly-vested “volunteer escort” was on hand at PP’s front door. Business as usual, apparently – whatever that means behind that front door.
This was a day to #ProtestPP nationwide. Those videos just keep coming, the latest describing a PP facility’s “harvesting” of a brain from a still-living not-quite-aborted fetus. Cecile Richards’s videotaped “oops” seems like it happened in another age, though it was only seven videos ago.
Enough. More than enough. In the Granite State, people stood outside five Planned Parenthood locations to call for an end to the atrocities and an end to compulsory public funding of the abortion leviathan. I was in Manchester, and the size of the crowd frankly surprised me. I’ve stood shoulder to shoulder with some of those people before. There were many new faces, though, and some of them came quite a distance to participate.
Paul Galasso, Cathy Kelley, and the team from New Hampshire Right to Life had local leadership roles. The number of national groups who signed on to #ProtestPP is staggering, but local organizers are the ones who made the demonstrations happen. “What a wonderful stand for life. God bless you all,” said a clearly delighted Jane Cormier, NHRTL president, as she looked over the crowd at the end of the two-hour event. Paul Galasso added, “This is not really the end of a protest; this is the beginning of a new higher level of awareness of the crime of abortion.”
I met Paul for the first time today. I quickly learned he’s an optimist. “We’re all going to enjoy, I think, watching the news and reading the newspapers, hopefully an awful lot of coverage on what was accomplished today.” I saw one reporter, from I don’t know what outlet [update: the New Hampshire Union Leader] who was taking photos and doing interviews. I saw a couple of professional photographers including Matthew Lomanno, who graciously gave permission for me to use his work in this post. That’s it, unless undercover journalists were present. During the event, Manchester’s ABC television affiliate – its studio a mile and a half away – tweeted about “Permaculture Day.” [Update: the station, WMUR, accepted photos of the event and plans to use them in this evening’s newscast.]
Social media filled the coverage gap not only in Manchester but around the country. I monitored Facebook and Twitter as the morning wore on, and saw that participants in many cities were posting their own photos. There’s an awful lot of coverage, all right – but legacy media is probably not going to be the place to find it.
Here’s my own testimony: people came out in Manchester, women and men alike, from college students to retirees. Whole families were there with strollers and chilled water for the kids. One enterprising Pennacook Street resident set up a 50-cent lemonade stand. There were pro-life people spilling over onto the sidewalks of Elm and Chestnut Streets. Along Elm Street, I saw the pro-life demonstrators and the few pro-PP people having quiet, civil conversations.
And that’s what happened in one city. #ProtestPP was scheduled to take place in at least 250 other cities as well.