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.