Affirming nonviolence, then and now

Kneeling Ministers, in Birmingham's Kelly Ingram Park, a civil rights memorial. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Kneeling Ministers, in Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, a civil rights memorial. The George F. Landegger Collection of Alabama Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

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:

  1. Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.
  2. Remember always that the nonviolent movement in Birmingham seeks justice and reconciliation – not victory.
  3. Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.
  4. Pray daily to be used by God in order that all men might be free.
  5. Sacrifice personal wishes in order that all men might be free.
  6. Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.
  7. Seek to perform regular service for others and for the world.
  8. Refrain from the violence of fist, tongue, or heart.
  9. Strive to be in good spiritual and bodily health.
  10. 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.

“Be people of hope”: AUL’s Lamontagne speaks at 40DFL wrap-up

Ovide Lamontagne speaking to Manchester 40DFL volunteers
Ovide Lamontagne speaking to Manchester 40DFL volunteers

Ovide Lamontagne is general counsel of Americans United for Life – except when he’s back home in Manchester, New Hampshire. There, he’s simply Ovide, having made his mark through the years as attorney, candidate, chairman of the state Board of Education, and supporter of numerous nonprofit organizations in the area. He was in town Saturday to address the closing gathering of the season’s 40 Days for Life campaign in Manchester.

“Be people of hope”

“40 Days for Life is founded on hope. Be people of hope,” he began. He recalled the 2012 election, in which he was the Republican gubernatorial candidate in New Hampshire. “People have come up to me over the past two years to say how frustrated they were over what happened in 2012 in that election. How angry and disenfranchised they felt. And I say to them that’s OK. That’s human. I felt frustrated about the way things worked out. But I submit to you we cannot lose hope. We are called to be people of hope and faith and love. Working with 40 Days for Life, we are becoming that.”


He began working for AUL, “the nation’s premier pro-life legal team,”  in 2013. “Thank God for 40 Days for Life. We filed an amicus brief for 40 Days for Life in a case called McCullen v. Coakley” – the Massachusetts buffer zone case, well-known to his listeners, who applauded his reference to the case. “Thank God the Supreme Court made the right decision. We were able to write in our brief what 40 Days for Life does – affirm women and men. Young people are reaching out to women who think they don’t have a choice.”

“It starts in the states”

Ovide outlined the background of AUL’s work and legal strategy. “The U.S.A is one of four countries that allows abortions through nine months of pregnancy.”  He knows that U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen is trying to win re-election by casting herself as more “pro-choice” than her opponent, Scott Brown. Ovide said, “That means [abortion] through all nine months of pregnancy.” The good news: “62% of Americans polled said there should be more restrictions on abortion, and 64% said they support a late-term abortion ban.”

That’s where AUL’s current strategy kicks in. “[A late-term ban] is what we’re trying to encourage Congress to pass, so we can bring some sanity to what is an extreme position in America and in New Hampshire.”

Americans United for Life has made a priority of developing suggested state-level state legislation, known collectively as the Women’s Protection Project. “The pro-life movement needs a mother-child strategy, and that’s what we do at AUL. The reality is there are two victims of abortion, every time: unborn children and women. Abortion harms women. We are better than that.” Abortion-facility regulation, while not yet in place in New Hampshire, has been adopted in some other states, notably Texas. “Pro-abortion forces say aw, come on, [things like] hallway widths are relevant to getting an abortion? Ask the family of Karnamaya Mongar.” Mongar was one of Kermit Gosnell’s victims, who died following a late-term abortion. The Gosnell grand jury report cited narrow hallways in Gosnell’s facility as one factor that delayed emergency responders from being able to evacuate Mrs. Mongar from the building.

“The state has the right to regulate abortion to make it safe for women. You can’t pass a law for the purpose of closing clinics, but know this: this industry is about making money, and they’re not going to raise standards. They’re going to say we have to close our clinics instead. And that’s OK. We can’t do this without you. It starts in the states.”

“The civil rights movement of this generation”

It’s not lost on Ovide that a hallmark of the contemporary pro-life movement is the involvement of youth, whether it be at the national March for Life or the local 40DFL campaign. “Things are happening in the pro-life movement that are very encouraging. People are waking up to what is going on. And it’s the young people who are going to save our country.

“We can’t give up, and have to move when, where and how we can to advance the culture of life in America. We are the civil rights movement of this generation.”

One more day

Jennifer Robidoux, coordinator for this 40 Days for Life campaign, reminded everyone that the campaign’s formal conclusion is Sunday evening. “There’s still a day and a half. Wouldn’t it be great to end this campaign with every hour covered?” She announced that she’s stepping down as coordinator, leaving plenty of time for another volunteer to step forward. “The spring campaign is just around the corner. The rest of the leadership team is ready to get started.”

Ovide (left) with Manchester 40DFL leadership team: Pastor Don Colageo, Geneva Beaudoin, Jennifer Robidoux, Beth Scaer, Joan Silvernail, Maurice Huberdeau
Ovide (left) with Manchester 40DFL leadership team: Pastor Don Colageo, Geneva Beaudoin, Jennifer Robidoux, Beth Scaer, Joan Silvernail, Maurice Huberdeau