Adapted from a 2015 post on this blog.
Peaceful pro-life witness is not Activism Lite.
Recall what peaceful witness called for in 1963, in the face of angry and sometimes violent resistance that had deep political and social roots. Recall Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words from those days: I grow weary of those who ask us to slow down.
In 1963, a few months before Dr. King’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 its 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.
I want to take the Birmingham commitment to heart.
Witnessing with accountability
Anyone can sign a piece of paper (or in this age, click on “I agree”) signifying a commitment. So why bother? Because 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 peaceful demonstrators and any people willing to resort to violence to impede them.
I have neighbors who take umbrage at the assertion 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 haven’t endured the physical abuse to which the Birmingham demonstrators were subjected. Their example is awesome even today. 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.
The immoderate “moderates”
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.’”
King used the word “moderate” ironically. He knew that civil rights, but not yet was a phony kind of moderation. In the same manner, denying the right to life is hardly a moderate position, even when cloaked in euphemisms like “reproductive justice.”
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.